sun 16/06/2024

Robert le Diable, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Robert le Diable, Royal Opera

Robert le Diable, Royal Opera

Meyerbeer rarity more than justifies its revival in Laurent Pelly's effective production

The excellent John Relyea as the panto villain Bertram©ROH/Bill Cooper 2012

My phone's predictive text posed an interesting question. Robert le Doable it insisted on calling last night's opera. And it's often been asked of this and other grands opéras. Are they doable? Such was the munificence of the times in which they thrived, and such has been the collapse in their popularity, are grands opéras worthy of resurrection? And do we have the resources and good will to do justice to their singular vision?

If any opera company could meet the all-singing, all-dancing demands, it is the Royal Opera House. And if any of the hundreds of grands opéras that graced the Paris stage at the genre's height ought to be resurrected, it is Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable - even though it took a couple of acts to fully realise how the piece became such an overnight sensation and century-long obsession.

Indeed, if you were to judge last night on the first act you might have been confused on many fronts. Confused at the high standing of director Laurent Pelly, whose set was a mess. Confused at the plot, which raises the stakes in relational coincidence to new heights of silliness. Confused at how or why any of us were here at all, not tucked up in bed watching something half decent - and cheaper - on telly. By the start of Act Two, however, things were settling in. Here, the love story begins in earnest.

Poplavskaya and Relyea made the third act and the final scene of the fifth fizz And it isn't a wholly uninteresting story when seen in the round. Marrying all the fashionable elements of early Romantic opera - medievalism, supernaturalism, redemption through religion - to a Manichaean battle over one man's soul, the central love match between Norman Duke Robert le Diable and Sicilian Princess Isabelle becomes the plaything for an overarching and curiously Freudian struggle. The characters who act as the evening's puppet-masters are Robert's sister, Alice, representing virtue and his father, Bertram, vice. 

Though Pelly tightens things up by Act Two, one can't help but feel a trick has been missed in this faithful if stylised realisation, which mines the pen-and-ink work of the 19th century for some picture-book scenery. A Christof Loy might possibly have delved a bit deeper into the psychological implications of the plot, which suggest interior possibilities for all the various exterior high drama. To be fair, Pelly does attempt a conceptualisation, though a little half-heartedly and patronisingly. Primary coloured toy horses, joining toy knights, toy courtiers and pop-up book backdrop, encourages us to see (and perhaps dismiss) the work as child's play. 

And what of the music? Music that simultaneously provoked Chopin to hail Meyerbeer as one of the greats - "It is a masterpiece… Meyerbeer has made himself immortal" - and that also consigned the composer to a century of oblivion. (This is the first British staging since the 19th century.) Both responses to the score are understandable. It's not difficult to see why it became an overnight success. Yet it's also not impossible to recognise why it also disappeared. The melodic writing is frequently very beautiful. And when you think of the variety of form and orchestral colour in the score (and considering the opera appeared amid the hackneyed repetitions and knowing artifice of the operas of Rossini and Donizetti), it's not hard to see why people so hungered after this more spontaneous and intensely felt new drama. 

There are many musical moments I'd return to - as so many composers did in the century after in dozens of popular arrangements - the dead nun's ballet (choreographed by Lionel Hoche with the just the right amount of orgiastic impropriety), Alice's third act Romance (innocently done by a dangly-legged Marina Poplavskaya) and Isabelle's harp-punctuated Cavatina (Patrizia Ciofi proving a more than able stand in for Diana Damrau). And one could also delight in the frequent exquisite eddies of wind and brass writing that wafted up from the Royal Opera House Orchestra under the baton of Daniel Oren. Yet all this musical variety can - and does - also become a curse. Meyerbeer's commercially driven keenness to move on to the next sparkly idea means he leaves behind a trail of unfinished sentences, something Wagner found very profitable to rectify.

Still, more often than not, the music, singing and staging came together last night. Bryan Hymel (Robert) was in admirable control of his tricky, high-lying part, despite having to strain a little. And though he never quite got under the skin of his character Robert - whose schizophrenic toing and froing was never very believable - he never entirely lost us. The panto villain Bertram is an easier role to take advantage of and John Relyea did so to the full. Poplavskaya (pictured right) was a curiously stern angel figure yet, with Relyea, she made the third act and the final scene of the fifth fizz. Both times they were flanked by Chantal Thomas's attractive giant pen-and-ink cut-outs onto which was projected some nifty animation (Claudio Cavallari) - the mountain caves that Bertram stalks transformed into Bosch-like infernos. And then there were the winsome, child-like contributions from Ciofi, pining after her vacillating man from the tops of cardboard cut-out castles. 

Perhaps Pelly was right to go down the fairytale route after all. The libretto isn't meaty enough to sustain a full psychological make-over. And as we retreat into comfortable Christmas archetypes, primary colour dramatics is perhaps what we want. The Royal Opera may have themselves a surprise winter hit. Robert le Doable? Yes. And it very much deserved to be done.

The Royal Opera may have themselves a surprise winter hit


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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"The melodic writing is frequently very beautiful" to my ears these were rare moments. For the most part it was intolerably mundane.Not a patch on the likes of Rossini. However, it was very worthwhile mounting this opera.

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