Robert le Diable
Poplavskaya, Ciofi; Hymel, Relyea; Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Oren. Production: Pelly. Opus Arte BD7121D (Blu-ray) or OA1106D (2 DVDs), 206 mins. (opera), 6 mins. (bonus), subtitled
Robert le Diable was a spectacular smash hit at the Paris Opéra in 1831 and through most of the nineteenth century. Chopin and Liszt composed on its themes; Balzac and Sand wrote warmly about it; Courbet and Degas painted its characters and scenes. It influenced the Faust music dramas of Berlioz and Gounod and scenes in Carmen and Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Its ballet of dead nuns led to ballet blanc tableaux in La Sylphide, Giselle and La Bayadère. There was even a rose named after Robert le Diable.
Robert, with its simplistic good–evil conflict, played straight, would court ridicule today, and the economy discourages lavish productions with all the grand-opera trappings. So it made sense that London's Royal Opera, mounting Robert le Diable in 2012 for the first time since 1890, turned to Laurent Pelly, a brilliant director of Offenbachian comedy, and that he responded with a degree of camp. Predictably, some observers found his staging too flippant, others not flippant enough. Pelly sends up lusty drinking choruses; abetted by set designer Chantal Thomas, he places Princess Isabelle in a toy-town castle; flies knights in chain mail onto red, yellow, blue or green plastic horses; clothes and paints choristers hat-to-toe in those hues; projects bodies hurtling through hellfire; and (with choreographer Lionel Hoche) draws writhing and lurching from lascivious, loony nuns. But Pelly does not mock the main characters and their moral issues at the center of the drama. It's resolved outside the frame of a Gothic chapel, where Robert is torn between satanic Bertram, backed by a gaping maw, and angelic Alice among cutout clouds. Minimal as this climactic scene looks, it's perfectly clear and no more facile than the tale itself.
Audiences in 1831 had never heard so much brass or an opera score in which so much happened in the orchestra. In his 1837 short story "Gambara," Balzac ecstatically described musical details that seem less extraordinary today, in our post-Berlioz, Wagner and Strauss world. At first hearing, one may miss these, distracted by Meyerbeer's florid, rangy vocal writing, and rue having to wait so long (two hours and forty minutes in this much-cut performance) for a beautiful, moving aria — Isabelle's cavatina to harp and cor anglais, "Robert, toi que j'aime." The cuts used here are nearly all internal, and they shorten all five acts. Conductor Daniel Oren and the orchestra are accurate and sonorous if short on fire and diablerie.
For a production bedeviled by cast changes, the singers excel. Tenor Bryan Hymel, an early replacement as Robert, is a pillar of strength in a role studded with high notes, up to D, each of which rings out firmly while his face expresses the character's crazed torment. Marina Poplavskaya, who pulled out of the show during rehearsals due to illness but returned a week later, surmounts a flawed technique with generous tone, sincerity and intensity as selfless Alice. Patrizia Ciofi, the third soprano cast as Isabelle, four days before opening night, uses her slender voice skillfully; she's agile in coloratura, searing in the great aria. Despite straining for some top notes, bass-baritone John Relyea is a vocally satisfying Bertram who believably embodies the role, personable on the surface, demonic at the core. Tenor Jean-François Borras is terrific as Raimbaut, Alice's fiancé, and the Royal Opera Chorus shines.
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