Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

Betrothal and Betrayal : JPYA at the ROH

The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.

Jenůfa Packs a Wallop at DMMO

There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.

Des Moines Fanciulla a Minnie-Triumph

The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.

Des Moines: A Whole Other Secret Garden

With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.

Seductive Abduction in Iowa

Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Garsington Opera

Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.

Richard Strauss: Arabella

I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.

Carmen in Orange

Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

09 Dec 2012

Meyerbeer Robert le Diable, Royal Opera House

Why was Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable an overwhelming success in its time ? The Royal Opera House production suggests why: it's a cracking good show! Extreme singing, testing the limits of vocal endurance, and extreme drama. Robert le Diable is Faust, after all, not history, and here its spirit is captured by audacious but well-informed staging. Listen with an open mind and heart and imagine how audiences in Meyerbeer's time might have imagined the madness and magic that is Robert le diable.

Giacomo Meyerbeer : Robert le diable

Robert : Bryan Hymel, Alberti : Nicolas Courjal, First Chevalier : David Butt Philip, Second Chevalier : Pablo Bemsch, Third Chevalier : Ashley Riches, Fourth Chevalier : Jihoon Kim, Bertram : John Relyea, Raimbaut : Jean-Francois Borras, Alice : Marina Poplavskaya, Isabelle : Patrizia Ciofi, Lady-in-waiting : Dusica Bijelic, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House Conductor : Daniel Oren, Director - Laurent Pelly, Designer :Chantal Thomas, Costumes : Laurent Pelly and Jean-Jacques Delmotte, Lighting : Duane Schuler, Video : Claudio Cavallari, Choreography : Lionel Hoche

The Royal Opera House, London, 6 December 2012

 

Bryan Hymel is outstanding, singing the difficult, unusual part with exceptionally fluid, lyrical singing, the cruel tessitura negotiated with such strong technique that we hear the part, not the effort. He isn't simply displaying vocal skill, but infusing the part with greater psychological depth than the text itself suggests. That is true artistry. Opera is not singing alone, it is drama with music at its heart. The extremes Meyerbeer writes into the vocal line express Robert's tortured soul: Hymel makes them ring with emotional conviction. In the duet "Mon coeur s'élance et palpite", he almost steals the show though Isabelle has the killer high notes. Many other exquisite moments, like the Act Four "du magique rameau". Hymel, still only 33, is a voice to cherish.

The parts of Alice and Isabella are tours de force. Alice is a maid from Normandy, as the orchestra tells us with vaguely folk melodies. Although she carries a letter from Robert's mother she is not Micaëla whose love for Don José is tainted with possessiveness. Meyerbeer's audiences would have no trouble identifying Alice with Joan of Arc, another girl from Normandy who fought against all odds. Marina Poplavskaya's Alice is no bimbette, but a heroine worthy of Jeanne d'Arc herself.

Poplavskaya's voice soars clear over the orchestra in the tricky early parts of the opera. But it's in her confrontation with Bertram that she shows the intelligence she brings to the characterization. Poplavskaya reaches the horrendously high notes with clarity. Alice is direct, she doesn't make a fuss, so this intense portrayal is psychologically true. Yet it also refects the recurrent staccato in the music, and the thrusting, stabbing passages in the orchestra. The mock medieval battle in the text is outclassed by the cosmic battle for Robert's soul. Poplavskaya's Alice is lithe and energetic, for she's a swordsman duelling against death.

Isabella's two biggest arias, "Idole de ma vie" and "Robert, toi que je t'aime" define the word "show stopper". Done well, the audience is stunned and the action stops until applause subsides. That alone can make good theatre. In the Cavatina, the word "Grâce" is repeated in elaborate variations. Then the orchestra chimes in, provoking even greater feats of vocal gymnastics. You're left gasping. Patrizia Ciofi received much applause for standing in at the last moment. She's very experienced, having first taken the role more than ten years ago. Perhaps she'll slip back into gear as the run continues. She's excellent, but this is a role that needs heart shatteringly astonishing singing.

John Relyea sings Bertram's set piece arias at the end of Act Four impressively but he is no pantomime villain. Tellingly, he sings details like the recurrent "mon fils, mon fils" with gruff tenderness. He wants Robert because Robert is his son. Relyea's subtlety suggests why Bertram was once loved by the saintly Rosalie, Robert's mother. While Meyerbeer milked the plot for melodrama, there's room in the music for the depth Relyea brings to it.

Since many people know nothing of Meyerbeer other than Wagner's slander, our modern approach to Meyerbeer is distorted. Wagner was such a complex person that it's nonsense to take a simplistic view of the Wagner/Meyerbeer relationship. Alberich-like, Wagner attacked Meyerbeer, as if to downplay how much he owed him If Meyerbeer's use of the orchestra seems over the top to us, it's because we are thinking in Wagnerian terms. Meyerbeer extends his characterizations with motives that run through the opera like a thread - drinking songs, marches, Norman folk songs. Develop these further and call them Leitmotivs. He also uses the orchestra sparingly - harps around Isabella's angelic singing, brooding winds and brass around Bertram. The large orchestral flourishes are deftly done, and move the action forward, without overpowering - we want to hear those clear high vocal notes shine, after all.

If we free ourselves of Wagner snobbery, we can appreciate Robert le Diable's true place in music history. Its obvious antecedent is Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz and its direct descendant Berlioz The Damnation of Faust. All derive form the High Romantic fascination with Gothic fantasy and the occult. Meyerbeer may not be "modern" taste but that reflects on our awareness of period opera. Even Bach was largely forgotten until Mendelssohn championed his music. It's only in relatively recent decades that Rossini and Handel operas have enjoyed the respect they deserve. Perhaps the shadow of Wagner is so strong that we don't let ourselves enjoy Meyerbeer because we're too worried about what others might think.

We should bear this background in mind when assessing this Royal Opera House production, directed by Laurent Pelly with designs by Chantal Thomas and atmospheric lighting by Duane Schuler. This staging would go a long way towards a reasessment of Meyerbeer because it is well researched and erudite. The ballet, where the ghosts of dead nuns are seem rising from their graves, is based almost exactly on the original Paris designs. The etchings we see are also based on authentic period imagery. The huge revolving mountain that dominates the stage could come straight out of a Gothic painting or novel. To 19th century people, wild landscapes represented fear and superhuman forces. Think the Wolf's Glen in Der Freischütz.

Robert le Diable
is melodrama, but by no means po-faced. Even Heinrich Heine noted that the plot wasn't great.

"Es ist ein großes Zauberstück
Voll Teufelslust und Liebe;
Von Meyerbeer ist die Musik,
Der schlechte Text von Scribe."

This staging is colourful because the music is colourful. How Meyerbeer's audiences must have thrilled to the sight of semi-naked nuns dancing lustfully. They would have enjoyed mock medieval pgeantry without worrying too much whether it was authentic. Our modern obssession with period-specific staging meant nothing to audiences who were used to seeing zany mixtures of period and style. Ironically, this is a much more authentic staging than many realise. In many ways, we are less open to the art of imagination now than our forebears were once. Why shouldn't we have as much fun as they did? Pelly and Thomas are giving us a chance to see the opera in context. We should value the chance to see this opera done in this way because chances are we won't get many opportunities since it's not at all an easy work to stage.

This ROH production is being recorded and filmed. BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting an audio version on Saturday 15th December (link here).

Anne Ozorio

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):