23 Dec 2012

Subject: Aimez-vous Meyerbeer?

Well, so many don’t nowadays, it appears to me, judging by the critical reception of Robert le Diable at the ROH. Rum-ti-tum? We recall Macbeth, Rigoletto, Trov and even Trav being characterised thus, popular fare but risible or blush- making, yet those works now command the highest respect.

True, Meyerbeer lacks the high melodic genius of Verdi, whose every work is both obviously his yet paradoxically also has its own unique sound world; but I think the problem is not that. We are out of sympathy with the social world for which such works were conceived.

BC20121203_RobertLeDiable_8.gifMarina Poplavskaya as Alice and John Relyea as Bertram

Long, leisurely five-acters? Plots elevated to the level of the hieratic? Above all comfortable plushness, with little apparent intellectual bite? All that suited opera audiences of the time, but something more is needed for survival, and you don’t have to listen very hard to discern it. Skill in the construction of a theatre piece, to start with: how different do the two long scenes between Bertram/Raimbaut and Bertram/Alice sound, for instance, reflecting Bertram’s manipulation of each of these victims and their differing reactions (no pushover, she); how each character is delineated through the music, their unfolding scenas certainly not generic as is the libretto; how atmospheric are the orchestral passages, even though perhaps some might long for Weber.

All this would go for naught, of course, without a fine performance. Do you ever have that feeling, when the lights dim and the first notes arise, that all will be well this evening, and there is nowhere else you would rather be? It was that way on Saturday last, softly bathed in pellucid sound (Daniel Oren conducting) perfectly judged for the auditorium, without that muddiness that often tells you you’re in for a sticky ride; above all the singers had the measure of the style: to my ear French display opera has a certain chic restraint, without the glitz of its Italian counterpart, and whilst Damrau would have been starrier, Ciofi (yes, an Italian) was most touching, every cadence perfectly placed. Poplavskaya excelled herself, with an unusual combination of staunchness and thrilling ease; Hymel paid Meyerbeer the compliment of taking him seriously, and was utterly believable in the role, which he made seem child’s play to sing; Relyea has been seriously undervalued, and Jean-Francois Borras was a delightful new discovery for me. And the Chorus excelled themselves.

RobertLeDiable_1180.gifA scene from Robert le Diable

Which brings me to Laurent Pelly’s production. When it comes to the chorus, modern directors seem to model themselves on Eisenstein. Here there is a difference: Pelly’s chorus is sometimes Greek, hovering en masse, but always in articulated geometrical forms — think Pina Bausch dance, where we see individuals impelled however to move in unison. So in Act 1 we see the knights tightly choreographed but moving like lava when the occasion demands; later they assume a diamond formation, as if grouped in a giant boardgame. Sounds odd, maybe, but it has the effect of throwing the main characters into individual relief, and aiding the flow of the plot.

The nuns’ music surprised me (I must have been confusing them with Casanova’s); it is hard to guess what the original movement must have been, but the costumes were closely modelled on lithographs of that time, the music perhaps self-indulgently long and unvaried, the dancers nicely distinguished even if all in the same plight. Only ten, on this big space? I thought; but then the whole chorus flooded on, swamping the stage, even more deshabilles, and equally frantic, in a splendid coup de théâtre. Costumes might well have been taken from contemporary miniatures; settings from prints of the time (the stage department excelled itself in their manipulation).

I came away elated, thinking that the composer had achieved an integrated piece of work on a high level, with that afterglow you get following a really good meal. I guess that’s what the original audiences felt too. Will Meyerbeer catch on? Don’t put money on it. Maybe you have to be a bourgeois Marxist to like it?!

Kenneth Brown

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