Robert le Diable (in Italian)
Scotto, Malagù; Merighi, Manganotti, Christoff, Antonini; Chorus and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Sanzogno. No text or translation. Myto 0006 (3)
When Robert le Diable was produced in Florence in 1968, there were two points of special interest. One was the work itself, which, along with all of Meyerbeer's operas, had been in eclipse for decades. The other was the production by noted theater director Margherita Wallmann. Four decades later, there are two different points of interest. One is that we know now that the opera as presented in 1968 bore almost no resemblance to the opera as Meyerbeer composed it. The other is the rediscovery of the extraordinary bel canto singer Renata Scotto was in the 1960s, before she steered her career in a different direction with Tosca, Butterfly and Lady Macbeth.
Scotto was known for her Lucia and her Amina in La Sonnambula in this period (excerpts from an exquisite Venice Sonnambula in 1961 are in circulation), and as Meyerbeer's Isabelle she gives a comprehensive performance. She knows how to capture an audience from her first note. Her quick figuration is always shaped, clear and unfudged. Little shaken grace notes are used to illuminate character; in the famous prayer of Act IV, accompanied by harp and English horn, the smallest notes are sung with both lightness and expression. She also pops off an unwritten high E in Act II and can hold a high C for days. In the finale of Act II she shows both a military spirit in public utterance and genuine warmth in asides. The performance is representative of the singer she was early in her career, and it will come as a surprise to anyone who knows her only from her Il Trittico years at the Met.
When she is offstage, which is to say in Acts I, III and V, she is sorely missed. Boris Christoff, as the wily and mercurial devil Bertram, has mistaken his role for that of Moses laying down the ten commandments. Meyerbeer conceived a Bertram full of gallows humor, with prominent bassoon and bass-clarinet parts in the orchestra, but Christoff on this occasion seems incapable of insinuation or of charming anyone into anything. Samuel Ramey used to beautifully differentiate the places where Bertram reverts to an oily or quiet tone, and it is a great loss that neither of Ramey's home companies in New York ever mounted a production of Robert for him. Christoff, on the other hand, evidently did not even notice that Meyerbeer asked for an entire page of music to be sung pianissimo. In the title role, Giorgio Merighi offers good legato and a nice ping to his top range without giving much in the way of characterization. Stefania Malagù, as Alice, brings beautiful phrasing to the grand finale, a barn burner that moves in stately, carefully composed fashion from B minor to a blaze of B major.
But it is difficult to evaluate Malagù's performance, because so much of the opera is missing. Malagù sings her Act III scene with style and careful attention to intonation with her all-woodwind accompaniment, but both verses of her big number in Act I are cut. A chunk of that grand finale is gone. Meyerbeer planned an extraordinary sequence in Act III for star bass Nicolas Levasseur, who was given a buffo duet with the second tenor, a duet with the soprano, an unaccompanied trio with the soprano and the principal tenor, and a duet with the principal tenor. Here, the first and third of those are entirely gone, and the other two have major cuts. Bertram then has the most famous scene in the opera, the summoning of the spirits of dead nuns from their tombs to rise and dance. All of this is one of the most thrilling acts in the whole of Romantic opera. Here, with the huge cuts, the blunt Italian translation employed in this performance and the plodding conducting of Nino Sanzogno enabling Christoff's plodding performance, it is deadly dull. Robert is not the best of Meyerbeer's French grand operas, but it is a far better opera than it appears here. On the other hand, there is still Scotto….
WILLIAM R. BRAUN