Robert le Diable, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, December 2012

Before the first night of this hugely theatrical opera the ROH sent out a dramatic announcement saying they were “extremely grateful to Patrizia Ciofi, who has taken over the part of Isabelle at extremely short notice and will sing the role for the first four performances”. In the event she was wonderful, having sung the role before under conductor Daniel Oren, and as soon as she appeared in Act II, warmly vocal in her grief at the apparent loss of Robert, the whole performance rose to new heights.

Act I, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

Act I, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

Robert himself is a prey to forces beyond his control in the form of his demon father Bertram, and Alice, a Micaela-like character who adores him and brings a letter from his mother. That letter forms a small coup de theatre when she produces it in Act V. In the tug of war between her and Bertram, it persuades Robert to take her side, and go on to marry Isabelle, while Bertram is consigned to the fires of hell.

Congratulations to director Laurent Pelly for persuading the Royal Opera to put on this ‘Hollywood blockbuster’ as he has called it. It was a huge success at its first performance in 1831, remaining immensely popular throughout the nineteenth century, though unseen at Covent Garden since 1890. Could Pelly make it work, like Carmen, for a modern audience? Well, he can and he did.

Alice and Robert

Alice and Robert

He was helped by a superb cast, Bryan Hymel singing the very difficult role of Robert, which has seven high C’s in the first forty minutes, to say nothing of later exigencies of the role. Marina Poplavskaya sang beautifully as Alice after an uncertain start, looking serene, yet spitting defiance at John Relyea’s Bertram as she clung weakly to the cross in Act III. Relyea was superb, so full of menace as he threatens Alice, yet so urbane in his dealings with Robert as he persuades him to gamble away everything, before conjuring up the Prince of Granada, very well sung by Ashley Riches, to challenge him for Isabelle’s hand.

This opera reflects a nineteenth century view of the Middle Ages, cleverly signified by imagery at the very start. Two drinkers sit at a table, under a picture of a bottle of Vino di Sicilia labelled 1831, indicating the year of the opera and the location of the action in Sicily. The libretto was based on old legends of Robert of Normandy, father to William the Conqueror, and the star singers and sensational stage effects on at its first performances inspired Chopin to call it a masterpiece and doubt anything in the theatre had ever reached its level of splendour.

Bertram and Alice

Bertram and Alice

Pelly succeeds brilliantly with his production, the primary colours of the horses and the court ladies in the first two acts giving way to a heady German Romanticism in Act III showing mountainous terrain reminiscent of Der Freischütz, first seen in Paris seven years before Robert. The set turns, a cave appears, and inside the mountain devils use pitchforks to toss condemned souls to the flames of hell, in a scene reminiscent of the right panel of Hans Memling’s Day of Judgement. In Act V a beast of hell with flames in its mouth appears as a cardboard cut-out, and from the other side of the stage cut-out clouds bring on Alice. Battle between heaven and hell can commence, and Pelly has captured what for us is the kitsch nature of the opera, making it a theatrical treat.

Wonderful costumes by Pelly himself, with sets by Chantal Thomas beautifully lit by Duane Schuler who managed the trick of having Alice in the light, and Bertram in the dark as they come together in Act III. And then of course there is Meyerbeer’s music, superbly conducted by Daniel Oren. It worked its magic for me in Act IV as it evoked the play of higher powers, until arpeggios on the harp give a pause for reflection as Isabelle launches into a lovely aria professing her love for Robert.

Heaven versus Hell

Heaven versus Hell

Congratulations to the Royal Opera for giving us this hugely revitalised staging of a work that had a profound effect on both opera and ballet. The Act III music for the dance of the nuns reminded me of Løvenskiold’s La Sylphide, which it foreshadowed by a year. It was probably the first ballet ever performed with white tutus, and was a raunchy affair from which Maria Taglioni pulled out after her contracted six performances.

Timings in the cast list: Acts I and II 75 minutes, Act III 48, Acts IV and V 67 minutes, with two intermissions. That makes about 4 hours 35 minutes if the intervals are 30 minutes each, or less if they cut the length of the second interval, as they did on the first night.

Performances continue until December 21 — for details click here.

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