MEYERBEER Robert Le Diable
There are heaven and hell here for lovers of French opera, though unfortunately rather more of the latter. The operas of Meyerbeer come round so rarely in recordings, let alone on DVD, that a new Robert le diable has to be taken seriously. The high standard of filming and sound is indeed everything one would expect from Opus Arte. It is the staging that is the problem.
The challenge for a director is to recapture the sense of wonder reported at the time of the opera’s premiere by such diverse admirers as Chopin, Heine and Balzac. Unfortunately, Laurent Pelly only manages to create any Romantic atmosphere in the central act of the five, where Bertram’s encounter with demons is portrayed in an imaginative scene of hellfire suffering that might have been painted by Bosch. The rest of the opera looks like a cartoon comedy. The singers have been saddled with exaggerated gestures and Chantal Thomas’s eye-poppingly bright sets take us to a medieval Toytown, peopled by damsels sporting oversized conical headdresses and multicoloured horses. The result is wearing and often extraordinarily ugly.
It would take an exceptional cast to overcome this production’s shortcomings. Bryan Hymel deals skilfully with the title-role, reaching up to the high Cs, even at one point a D, with impressive ease. His nemesis, the devilish Bertram, is firmly sung by bass John Relyea, though one can only dream of what Christoff or Ghiaurov might have made of the role. As Alice, Marina Poplavskaya is inconsistent, alternating nicely affecting passages with curdled and raw sounds. The admirable Patrizia Ciofi rises to some heartfelt singing in Isabelle’s big solo, ‘Robert, toi que j’aime’, and Jean-François Borras fields the right native French style in the lightly comic part of Raimbaut. Daniel Oren gets excellent contributions from the orchestra and chorus, and (with the help of some trimming of the score) keeps the opera vividly on the move.
As a touchstone, try the famed ballet of the ghostly nuns. Here, this becomes a modernist piece of groping and writhing, and why do the nuns keep sticking their tongues out? Was that their verdict on the production?