Giacomo Meyerbeer - Robert Le Diable
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - 2012
Daniel Oren, Laurent Pelly, Bryan Hymel, John Relyea, Jean-François Borras, Marina Poplavskaya, Patrizia Ciofi, Nicolas Courjal, Jihoon Kim, Pablo Bemsch, David Butt Philip, Ashley Riches, Dušica Bijelić
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
The folly and the controversy surrounding the Royal Opera House's production of Meyerbeer's Robert Le Diable have been extensively reported elsewhere, from the cast changes and departures through to its critical mauling in the press. While I've no doubt that a full evening of a misconceived five-act Meyerbeer opera could well have been a painful experience live at the Royal Opera House, a filmed recording of the production is however another thing entirely. That's not to say that some of the problems with the production are any less evident, but there are compensating factors that one can perhaps better appreciate from the comfort of one's own living room.
Even the undoubted weaknesses in the production can be offset to a large degree in this case just by the rare opportunity to see one of the greatest works of 19th century opera performed on the stage. Meyerbeer was one of the most important and composers of his time, an influence on both Verdi and Wagner, but his extravagant style and grandeur hasn't remained fashionable, and even his greatest works - huge successes in their day - have fallen from the popular repertoire. Such is the case with Robert le Diable, a work which drew wide acclaim from fellow composers, critics and achieved wide popular international success following its premiere in 1831. The work was last performed at Covent Garden however in 1890, and it hasn't been performed much anywhere in the world over the last century.
The fundamental difficulty with putting on a staging a work of 19th century Grand Opera does indeed have to do with it being at odds with popular tastes and fashions. It's not so much a reflection on the quality of the work as the fact that modern audience has very different expectations from opera, and the old-style can be hard to swallow for a modernist, post-modernist, post-post-modernist audience. It's like expecting a reader of Harlan Coben thrillers to adapt to reading Walter Scott, or for readers of Ian McEwan to engage with the themes of Victor Hugo. The challenge that faced director Laurent Pelly then is not an enviable one. He may not entirely have succeeded, but although his production for the Royal Opera House was heavily criticised in a way Pelly does capture the spirit of Meyerbeer to some extent. Perhaps it's more of a case that audiences still aren't ready for Meyerbeer.
Which is understandable, but a pity nonetheless. If nothing else Robert le Diable is an opera experience like no other. Musically and in terms of plotting it's not the most sophisticated, but Meyerbeer packs the five acts of the opera so full of melodies and dramatic development, underlining it with grand choral refrains, lyrical expression, comic interplay and over-the-top gothic imagery with some ballet sequences thrown in for good measure, that it's never anything less than pure value-for-money entertainment. Pelly's production, unfairly criticised I feel, attempts to put all the colour and the darkness of the work up there on the stage in the sets and costumes, and he does so rather well. It's faithful to the spirit of the work, playing it straight where it ought to be, exaggerating in other places, but never stooping to making fun of the melodramatic developments and wild declarations.
Aiming for the middle ground between period fidelity and modernism, there's a "cardboard cutout" feel to the scenery then that is reminiscent in places of David Hockney's designs for the Glyndebourne production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. It's like an ancient black and white engraving that has been garishly hand-coloured, or even a medieval tapestry that might lack realistic detail and proportion, but nonetheless has the power to evoke the history and the values of another period far from our own. Sometimes this works exceptionally well (Act III's vision of Hell on a mountain pass like something out of an Hieronymus Bosch painting), at other times the imagery feels a little forced (the ultimate battle between the good of Alice and the evil of Bertram in Act V), and sometimes it's just a little too kitsch and reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail to take seriously (the colour of the medieval tournament in Act II).
In most cases however, even those mentioned above, these are valid responses to the nature and tone of the material itself. Stravinsky and Meyerbeer may have little in common (Gounod's Faust might be a better model to consider), but Robert le Diable does indeed relate an exaggerated morality tale of the battle between good and evil similar to the one in The Rake's Progress. Here, Robert of Normandy is rumoured to be the son of beautiful princess who married a demon from Hell. Robert however has the choice to follow a path of righteousness, and demonstrates his leniency by sparing the life of the minstrel Rimbaut who relates the story of Robert the Devil to assembled knights at an inn in Palermo. He could choose also to win the hand of Isabelle in the traditional way through a tournament, but despite the warnings of his late mother and his foster sister Alice, is laid astray by the machinations of his companion Bertrand, the real devil of the work. If he steals a magic branch from the tomb of Saint Rosalie, he can win Isabelle by other means.
Barring some questionable choices - I'm still in two minds about the choreography of the zombie sisters of St Rosalie during the opera's most famous/notorious Dance of the Nuns ballet - Pelly's staging is sympathetic to the shifts of tone in the work itself and gets fully behind it, never attempting to make it into something else entirely with conceptual cleverness. Daniel Oren too shows great feeling for the work, its rhythms and variations, and - regardless of what you think of the merits or otherwise of Meyerbeer's score - it's simply a delight to see this type of work being put through its paces. There is however one other problem associated with putting on a Meyerbeer opera that the best efforts of the conductor, director and the Royal Opera House seem powerless to influence. It seems like we really don't have the singers for this type of work any longer.
It's understandable that singers who would be suited to or capable of singing Meyerbeer are obviously more focussed on the greater career opportunities afforded by singing Wagner or bel canto. Even good Verdi singers are thin on the ground nowadays and the demands of Meyerbeer are often greater. Singing the title role, Bryan Hymel proves that he is up there and his performance is not only commendable, it's almost heroic. His voice might not be to everyone's taste, and it does start to grate and go a little bit wayward as the opera progresses through the final acts, but the effort is considerable. No less demanding is the role of Bertram and John Relyea handles it superbly and with great character. Despite her commitment, Marina Poplavskaya however is terribly miscast here, as is Patrizia Ciofi, who really doesn't have a large enough voice for this style of work, her singing sounding like a whimper that is lost in the orchestration and big choruses.
It's this aspect of the production that is the most problematic. While there are advantages to watching Robert le Diable on the screen that allow one to better to appreciate the full Meyerbeer experience that Oren and Pelly recreate, it only emphasises the unsuitability of some of the singing. There's no doubting the commitment of the performances however, and for all its flaws this is a sincere and a valiant effort to stage one of the great opera masterworks of yesteryear. The recording of the work and its presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray (which comes in a die-cut slipcase) is of course of the highest quality in both image and sound. The extra features however are slim, with only a Cast Gallery and a five-minute presentation on the legacy of the work, which does nonetheless give you an idea of the challenges of putting on this work. There's an essay and a full synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The disc is BD50, Full-HD, Region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.