Cher Public

A Faustian bargain

What we have here is the grandest opera never heard—in spite of the fact that Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable made, arguably, the most sensational debut of any in the history of the Paris Opéra. The massive work was hailed by nearly every composer of its day as a masterpiece, save a few bitter pill takers—Herrs Wagner and Mendelssohn I’m looking at you—and then transcribed into concert pieces by many of them.

Staging innovations for that first production included the first use in Paris of the English theatrical trap door. It even started trends in dance that live on to this day with the invention of the ur-tutu and the introduction of the “ballet blanc” genre with the ladies of the corps all in white. Being immortalized by Degas twice in paint and having the singular distinction of being the only 19th Century opera to have a rose named after it hardly even scratches the veneer of how wildly popular Robert was in its heyday.  

Meyerbeer was as skilled an orchestrator as he was a cultivator of acquaintance and he made certain that le tout Paris were there to witness his triumph which also cemented the reputation of his co-author Eugène Scribe whose librettos would become synonymous with the “Grand Opera” genre. His success was so assured that Berlioz was quoted as saying that Meyerbeer “has not only the luck to be talented, but the talent to be lucky.” But after his death his works, and Robert in particular, fell into disfavor among the musical intelligentsia with Herr Wagner beating the loudest drum in print. (The megawealthy Meyerbeer had declined a loan request from the perennially empty-pursed German composer in 1846 which led to his turning against the mentor who had facilitated the first stagings of Rienzi and Der Fliegender Höllander.)

The Met hasn’t performed Robert since its opening season in 1883 and it has been away from the Royal Opera at least that long. So our debt of gratitude should be enormous to Opus Arte for giving us a taste of this work which has never even enjoyed a commercial recording until now.

The backstory of the casting of this production was an opus in itself and was well recounted in these pages at the time. It included the withdrawal of Diana Damrau due to impending motherhood and the very public disinvitation of her replacement from making her Covent Garden debut following the dress rehearsal. An announcement of indisposition due to ill health was even issued a month prior to the prima for Marina Poplavskaya only to have her sing anyway.

The conducting duties here fall to Daniel Oren and although he doesn’t prove a medieval alchemist with his baton he does underline the more gorgeous aspects of Meyerbeer’s score.  He starts with the brief prelude which is practically a master class in counterpoint and theme introduction. Although there were actually a few moments when I thought he could have taken a stronger hand, he and the Covent Garden Orchestra do a fine job of supporting the singers in an unfamiliar work. Particularly tricky for all in the complicated ensembles—of which there are many in the performance’s three hours and forty minutes of music. (I also understand that there are substantial cuts to trim it down to just that but being so unfamiliar with the score I’m afraid I can’t speak to the performance edition.)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Royal Opera should hand the directing and costume designing duties to Laurent Pelly and his collaborateur and set designer Chantal Thomas since they’ve nearly monopolized the French wing of late. What probably did surprise them was how light a tone their production team chose to take. Where as many of their past productions have managed to pulled off a charming whimsy Robert lands most decidedly in the camp of camp.

The monochromatic costumes fashioned out of rough-hewn fabrics we’ve come to expect. But must the choristers’ faces be painted the same hue as their frocks? The Act II tournament especially resembles the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry rendered in Crayola. It tries to work but really just makes me feel sorry for the chorus. The set for Act III on a craggy mountainside etched to magnificent detail à la Gustave Doré does work and how. Stunning projection effects showing the yawning mouth of hell and teeny shadows of the damned writhing in agony. On the other hand, Princess Isabelle of Sicily’s toy palace could have used some of the same detailing as could the framework of the church in the last act. You have to work your imagination pretty hard to understand how some of these tableau reached the level of splendor and magnificence that enraptured the Parisians at the premiere.

The whole thing runs mostly like a child’s big wind-up toy and I’m talking about the staging now. Because, sadly, the singers rarely move with any dramatic motivation since they’re really just making pretty pictures on the stage all evening for Msr. Pelly. The Dead Nuns’ Ballet with choreography by Lionel Hoche, turns out to be the night’s high point, a cross between Matthew Bourne and The Walking Dead.

Oh, and there’s a plot!  Suffice to say that Robert is thinking of signing his immortal soul over to Bertram, who’s a devil (and also his father, shhh!), so he can marry Princess Isabelle. But! His step sister Alice has been up the hillside and smelled the brimstone and she knows something’s up and intends to put a stop to it. She’s got a letter from Mom that, if Robert would have only let her read it when she offered to in Act I, could’ve spared us all the ensuing three hours.

Jean-François Borras plays the secondary tenor role of Raimbaut who’s so non-integral to the plot I didn’t even mention him in the synopsis above. He’s an attendant to Robert and Alice’s affianced and he has a nice lyric voice of some distinction which serves him well especially in the Act I ballad he’s given that sets up the plot.

Patrizia Ciofi is Princess Isabelle who was raised, as are all good Disney Princesses, to be a coloratura soprano. It’s a fiendish role and luckily Ms. Ciofi has already had some experience in the part so she dashes off most of the formidable hurdles easily and takes no prisoners in her opening aria. She’s an extremely lithe performer onstage but also guilty of moving seemingly without motivation and, it’s uncharitable to say but, close ups betray her as superannuated compared to the rest of the cast.

The great Cornélie Falcon made her debut at the Opéra as Alice and was lauded for her appropriately ‘tragic demeanor’ in the role which, I’m certain, made the casting of Marina Poplavskaya a no brainer. She wrestles with her voice for most of the evening; however her contribution to the grand trio finale in Act V and is mostly glorious.

The role of Bertram makes an enormous number of demands on the performer who accepts it, not the least of which is its length, and John Relyea meets most of these with his warm lyric sound and straightforward mien. He pays a good deal of attention to the text which is laudable but if he seems at times to do a bit too much “mustache-twirling,” I blame Pelly. It’s still a lyric instrument though and not a dramatic one and his big showpiece on the Act III mountainside finds his voice hoarse and sadly pushed to the limit at the climactic phrase.  He does rise musically to the occasion for the final trio and it is the highlight of the evening for some of the wrong reasons.

Here’s Bertram finally confessing to Robert that he’s not only his father but a devil who is moments away from closing the deal on his immortal soul. They stand outside the church in which Princess Isabelle is about to be married when lo, behind him rolls on an enormous cross-hatched demon vehicle with glowing lava mouth and wings a-flappin’. Then just as that heats up a similarly rendered cloud bank glides on stage left carrying sister Alice replete with heavenly glow. It’s like you’ve accidentally changed channels and found yourself on Monster Trucks: Opera Edition. I could barely believe my eyes.

The soul in question belongs to Bryan Hymel who’s singing Robert and there’s no use arguing that he’s not the raison d’etre that we’ve all found ourselves here. His claret tenor exhibits not only a beautifully focused tone at its best but stunning, old school, breath control right from the top of the evening. High C’s and D’s pop out of him all night long even though a few tend to an overly bright placement. It’s an astonishing performance driven in equal parts by youthful vigor as much as it is technical skill. He has a very authentic stage presence and seems to have cornered the market on disheveled/sudoriferous ardor.

My Blu-ray copy offered absolutely stunning DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio sound and very sharp picture, with subtitles in every language you don’t speak and even a petite  documentary. Oddly, there’s no track listing in the enclosed booklet with cue points at all even though they are listed on the disc menu itself.

In spite of a slightly uneven performance, and a production that makes Disney’s Sleeping Beauty look like a masterwork hanging at the Louvre, this is an important glimpse at a forgotten masterpiece that deserves more than an accidental rehearing.