Giocomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable (1831) is the stuff of which Gothic nightmares are made. That may be one reason why this once immensely popular work has not been performed at the Royal Opera House since 1890, for such fantastical subject matter fell out of favour in the twentieth century, and has only recently come back into fashion.
Another reason may be that for the amount that happens, the opera can feel quite unwieldy. Given this problem, Laurent Pelly’s new production sustains interest by cleverly playing out many of the opera’s subtleties and subtexts within the staging, even if the end product is unlikely to be to everyone’s taste. Speaking for myself, however, I was won over as my description of the staging over the evening shifted from ‘laughably lame’ to ‘gleefully impertinent’ to ‘deceptively clever’.
Act I seems to occur simultaneously in three moments in time. The knights’ armour is medieval, but Robert and Bertram don nineteenth century clothes, and all sit in a broadly modern day Sicilian restaurant. The most effective visual element is the way in which the knights bunch tight to confront the audience with exaggerated, and sometimes slow motion, gestures, but overall too much about the setting feels nonsensical. The start of Act II hardly fares better as Isabella sings ‘En vain j’espère’ perched aloft the ramparts of a disproportionately small castle with a strong ‘cardboard cut-out’ quality.
After this, however, things improve immensely. Both of the first two scenes introduce an element of bright colour, courtesy of life-size model horses in the first, and the ladies’ costumes in the second. When these suddenly combine in Act II’s second scene, we suddenly feel the magic and power of a medieval tournament, even though it is presented in a stylised and somewhat sanitised manner. This scene is also enhanced by seeing knights lowered onto their horses from on high, and a backdrop that accurately recalls the scenery of Sicilian puppet theatre.
Act III is even stronger as the mountain is given the quality of a nineteenth century print, and sees condemned souls tumbling down its side in a projected image that strangely recalls both Hieronymus Bosch and John Martin. In this scene, Bertram stands on a mountain pathway behind Raimbaut so that we are able to see his real intentions as he smoothly leads the minstrel astray. When, however, he tempts Robert, he ascends to the same level as his prey because this venture demands far more persuasion and interaction. The subsequent ‘Ballet of the Nuns’, choreographed by Lionel Hoche, is dynamic and sensual enough to sustain interest, while still carrying just an element of refinement and understatement.
It is a sturdy, and sometimes compelling, performance from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, and conductor Daniel Oren does seem to have a particular affinity with the singers. Patrizia Ciofi, who replaced Jennifer Rowley as Isabelle at the eleventh hour, sings ‘En vain j’espère’ with a beautifully sweet and clean line as she tosses out coloratura with ease. She also, however, demonstrates a richer voice, with some exquisitely measured vibrato in the generally lower ‘Robert, toi que j’aime’. As Alice, Marina Poplavskaya similarly tempers a soaring top range with her own brand of richness in the lower register.
As Robert, Bryn Hymel’s voice is always highly accurate, although the demands of such a big sing sometimes mean that his sound is not as aesthetically pleasing as it could be. Still, this problem does not persist in Acts IV and V when his immersion in the character’s emotions is matched by a faultless vocal performance. John Relyea is perfect as Bertram with his malevolent presence, strong – arm gestures and menacingly deep bass voice. As the four Chevaliers, and in the other small parts they play, David Butt Philip, Pablo Bemsch, Ashley Riches and Jihoon Kim — all participants in the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme — really excel. Although the overall vocal demands placed upon them may be fewer, for sheer quality of sound they succeed in living with the cast’s world class soloists.
The best illustration of just how well the production and acting engage us comes in Act V when we feel genuinely uncertain as to whether Alice or Bertram will win in the fight for Robert’s soul. And the final image of Robert, Isabelle and Alice standing in three archways of the church, with Raimbaut (Jean-François Borras) pointedly kneeling in the fourth, reminds us that although this production may come across as humorous and brash, its real creativity lies in the subtlety of its detail.
Robert le diable will be broadcast live from the Royal Opera House on BBC Radio 3 on 15 December from 18.00.