United Kingdom Meyerbeer, Robert le Diable: Soloist, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Daniel Oren (conductor). 18.12.2012
Robert: Bryan Hymel
Isabelle: Sofia Famina
Alice: Marina Paplovskaya
Bertram: John Relyea
Raimbaut: Jean-François Borras
Director: Laurent Pelly
Set Designs: Chantal Thomas
Lighting: Duane Schuler
Choreographer: Lionel Hoche
Daniel Oren is a respected conductor. On the full MusicWeb International review site I have reviewed a number of DVDs conducted by him: Madama Butterfly (from Arena di Verona), Tosca (same venue), an Aida (Naples) and a recommendable Nabucco (from Piacenza). They have in common conducting that moves between the adequate and the good. He is clearly a fine musician, yet he does not ignite his forces. The same would seem to be true live, here in this notable production of a Meyerbeer opera (earmarked, incidentally, for future DVD release). The orchestra played extremely well, perhaps they were on their toes because of the rarity of the score. Robert le Diable (1831) has not been performed at Covent Garden since 1890, so its appearance is cause for much joy. The high standard of the music and Meyerbeer’s sure dramatic grasp call into question surely the wisdom of what is allowed into the received operatic canon, and provides fuel for continued exploration. Incidentally, Chopin based a Grand duo concertant on themes from Robert. In some ways this sprawling five-acter encapsulates early Romantic opera, and indeed proved hugely influential (on Berlioz and Verdi in particular). Yet it has fallen out of favour, and one can only feel gratitude for the opportunity to actually see it staged by a major opera house.
The director at the Garden is Laurent Pelly, famous for his stunning Donizetti Fille du Regiment and perhaps his less impressive Massenet Manon. Pelly has furnished Meyerbeer with a production that appears to have split the critics. The plot is very much of its time. The use of the supernatural is at once fascinating and quaint: in the fourth act, Robert uses a magic branch to freeze everyone except for himself and Isabelle; in the final act Robert is torn between cardboard cut-out clouds of Heaven and a huge cardboard cut-out demon from Hell. It felt like the idea was that stagecraft had been borrowed from Baroque opera, and viewed from this angle it worked. The craggy mountains of the third act are sculpturally evoked, and the burning souls are projected upon them in infernal red. The tomb of Saint Rosalia (Act III) is the grey setting for the famous ballet of corpses, fascinatingly managed here via a sort of flippy-floppy semi-nightmare.
The plot is quite simple: Robert, Duke of Normandy, wishes to marry the virtuous Isabelle. The evil personage/Devil incarnate is Bertram, and it falls to Alice to provide the key. The plot also offers plenty of scope for the full range of operatic types, from arias through ensembles to choruses, over the course of the evening’s four and a half hours (6pm start; 10.25pm finish).
The part of Robert is cripplingly difficult, frequenting the region of high C sharps and D’s and full of testing passagework. Tenor Bryan Hymel is fully equipped for the score’s demands (he’s had a three-year run-up, by all accounts) and is a fine stage actor as well. He seemed so fully in his role that one actually became carried away with the plot ; he made the difficulties sound so remarkably easy. His love interest is the Sicilian Princess Isabelle, sung on this occasion by young Russian soprano Sofia Famina (replacing Jennifer Rowley and making her Royal Opera debut). Fomina was a totally convincing Isabelle, pure of voice and totally believable in terms of sheer beauty. She is scheduled for further appearances at Covent Garden in the 2013/14 season, and I hope to reacquaint myself with her then. She can project tenderness (the act II duet, “Avec bonte voyez mon peine”), yet she can also harness her abilities to generate truly exciting coloratura.
Marina Paplovskaya’s appearances have been uneven, in my experience. Her Violetta (Traviata) found her hopelessly outshone by Leo Nucci’s Germont père; yet as Corina in Rossini’s Viaggio a Reims back in July this year, she shone. Here in the role of Alice (Raimbaut’s fiancée and Robert’s foster sister) she tended towards the latter end of the spectrum, clearly on form, if not in world-beating voice. John Relyea was a firm Bertram, solid and reliable and clearly the bad guy; Jean-François Borras made the most of his opportunities as the Norman peasant Raimbaut.
This was an unforgettable evening from many angles.