Recordings > Opera and Oratorio

MEYERBEER: Robert le Diable

spacer Ciofi, Giannattasio; Hymel, Defontaine, Miles; Orchestra Filarmonica Salernitana "Giuseppe Verdi" and chorus of the Teatro dell'Opera di Salerno, Oren. Notes; translation online. Brilliant Classics 94604 (3)

RobertDiableCD

Robert le Diable, in 1831, brought something new to grand opera. Scribe's libretto adapted the fashion for Gothic spookery (a ballet for ghostly nuns!), medieval legend and Byronic existentialism. The music and the dramatic use Meyerbeer made of it inspired Chopin, Liszt, Verdi and Wagner. Berlioz wrote, "Robert le Diable provides the most astonishing example of the power of instrumentation when applied to dramatic music."

The hokey story and awkward dramaturgy have since fallen from favor, along with the rest of Meyerbeer's canon. Today, we have trouble both with the naïveté of the fable of a devil-begotten soul in peril and with finding singers who can put over the technically demanding music. You need a tenor with a soaring top indicative of heroic anguish, a soprano with dazzling coloratura, a bass who can summon the vast depths and a falcon mezzo of exceptional range and power. (The eponymous Cornélie Falcon made her opera debut as Alice in the Opéra's second cast.) With an inadequate cast, Robert, though tuneful, is a thundering bore. The story of the recent Covent Garden revival (after an absence of more than a hundred years) is cautionary, but casting confusion did not wreck the occasion, because conductor Daniel Oren had led a concert performance in Salerno and was able to bring in seasoned replacements who knew these now obscure roles. If the singers are good, Meyerbeer always gives value.

This recording is the Salerno performance of March 23, 2012, featuring two of the stars who went on to Covent Garden — Bryan Hymel as Robert, and Patrizia Ciofi as Princess Isabelle. The sound is notably cleaner than that of the recordings from Florence, Paris and Berlin performances over the past half-century; further, though Salerno cut the score to a mere three hours, the company used the revised scholarly edition produced by Wolfgang Kühnhold in 1999. (The performance does not include the aria and cabaletta that were composed for Mario's debut in the role in 1838 and have rarely been sung by anyone else until Chris Merritt rediscovered them.)

All the singers here are good, but the occasion belongs to the diabolical Bertram, Alastair Miles, sophisticated and ever so French, with clean diction and purposeful, seductive, flowing lines that outclass the ordinary mortals around him. Hymel, in his first assault on the title role, sings beautifully, especially in his duets, but seems at times desperate, less in charge of the highest notes than he proved a year later in the broadcast from Covent Garden. Ciofi, as Isabelle, sometimes loses a phrase to breathlessness and does not challenge the brilliance Scotto and Anderson brought to "Robert, toi que j'aime." Carmen Giannattasio, the Alice, is a find, with a dark, passionate voice, holding her own with Miles and Hymel in the great trio at the climax of Act III. Martial Defontaine sings the bumptious Raimbaut with eager charm. The forces of the opera house in Salerno are up to the mark, delicious in those whimsical accompaniments that were Meyerbeer's specialty, though sometimes the choral French sounds ungraceful. spacer 

JOHN YOHALEM

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3