Saturday 22 December 2012

Robert le diable, Royal Opera, 21 December 2012

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Robert – Bryan Hymel
Bertram – John Relyea
Raimbaut – Jean-François Borras
Alice – Marina Poplavskaya
Isabelle – Sofia Fomina
Alberti – Nicolas Courjal
Master of Ceremonies/First Chevalier – David Butt Philip
Herald/Second Chevalier – Pablo Bemsch
Prince of Granada/Third Chevalier – Ashley Riches
Priest/Fourth Chevalier – Jihoon Kim
Isabelle’s Lady-in-waiting – Dušica Bijelic

Laurent Pelly (director, costumes)
Chantal Thomas (set designs)
Jean-Jacques Delmotte (costumes)
Duane Schuler (lighting)
Claudio Cavallari (video)
Lionel Hoche (choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Daniel Oren (conductor)

Having been out of London for almost the entire run of Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, the only possibility was for me to catch the final performance. For once, I was very glad to have cast a fulsome number of pennies the way of the Royal Opera House. This was by any standards an important yet neglected work, by a crucially important yet all-but-ignored composer: just the sort of thing of which we should be seeing more on the Covent Garden stage. Frankly anything would be better than yet another outing for La triviata. (The cancellation of Oberon last season in favour of extending still further the number of performances of that most nauseating of operas still rankles almost beyond words.) I was vaguely aware of the criticism Robert received whilst I was away, and was unsurprised to discover how uninformed most of it was. A typical example, from a journalist I recently had the misfortune to hear mindlessly yet tirelessly haranguing the Artistic Director of the Salzburg Festival for having programmed Gawain rather than a Britten opera (as a ‘contemporary’ work!), may be read here. (Given the critical acuity with which that writer approached the most recent staging of Gawain at Covent Garden, one can understand why he might have wished to spare himself such undue challenge once again. One can certainly only continue to marvel that anyone is willing to pay him for writing such drivel.) People are perfectly at liberty not to like this work, indeed to criticise it as harshly as they feel necessary, but one would hope for a little more intelligence in the act.

No one – one hopes, even at that lowly critical level – would deny Robert its historical importance, staged one hundred times at the Paris Opéra within three years of its 1831 premiere and by 1835 seen at seventy-seven houses in ten countries. Meyerbeer’s influence on Wagner, to name but the most important example, runs deeper than most suspect; it was certainly not difficult, especially as the score progressed, to hear presentiments of The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin, as well as the more obvious Rienzi (‘Meyerbeer’s greatest opera’, in Hans von Bülow’s truthful quip.) Echoes of Der Freischütz are increasingly evident too, and not just in the more overtly ‘demonic’ third act, Weber himself of course heavily influenced by French and Italian music. Originality might not always be Meyerbeer’s strongest suit – what seemed either to be a quotation or direct plagiarism from Beethoven’s Symphony in the final act made me smile, though if one is going to steal, doing so from Beethoven shows good taste – yet claims of incompetence seemed to me wildly clear of the mark. Even in cut form – would it really have hurt to have retained an extra half-hour’s worth of music? – there are at the very least competent pacing and structure. (Contrast that with many works that bafflingly continue to hold the stage!)  And that despite the undeniable dramaturgical weakness of Raimbaut’s disappearance from the plot, a consequence of the move from originally-planned opéra-comique, in which his relationship with Alice loomed considerably larger, to grand opéra.

However, what struck me most of all was how untrue all the claims about alleged ‘unmemorability’ were. If tunes were your thing, you could hear a good few, and there was much more to nourish too, not least a good deal of attractive woodwind writing. The cello line highlighting the self-serving nature of Bertram’s apparent gallantry towards Alice in their third act duet struck me as a revealing dramatic touch, and that is but one example. Yes, there are examples of music that tend towards inconsequentiality or straightforward inappropriateness, but for me at least, they were surprisingly few. If the treatment of religion in the fifth act reduces it to little more than vaguely exotic ‘colour’, than Meyerbeer and Scribe are not alone in that failing; we suffer far worse from Gounod much more regularly. The theme of damnation, moreover, seems to me more interestingly handled than in many treatments; with Robert, one feels a true conflict in his choice between Heaven and Hell, their causes pleaded by Bertram and Alice respectively. There is no need to exaggerate; this is no Damnation de Faust; nor does Meyerbeer approach the compositional interest of Berlioz, let alone Wagner. Yet he pens a far more interesting, if uneven, score than anything by Verdi or Donizetti, whom houses inflict upon us with mind-numbing frequency. I doubt, however, that anything could redeem the third-act ballet: one of the most preposterous things I have ever seen, a cloister bacchanale for nuns risen from their tombs. Even if it had been handled more convincingly than here, Lionel Hoche’s embarrassing choreography, replete with strange noises, presumably intended as ‘erotic’, very much hailing from the school of Andrew George (as witnessed most recently in the dreadful McVicar Troyens.) If only we had had Calixto Bieito, perhaps the scene might have stood a chance. Perhaps, I repeat.

Where the Royal Opera performance truly fell down was in both the stage direction and the conducting: a very real problem for a work so little known and so easy to consign once again to the dustbin of history. Laurent Pelly’s production would doubtless have apologists praising its ‘whimsy’, most likely irritatingly prefaced by the offensive stereotype ‘Gallic’. It hovers uncertainly between sending up the work – not, I think, a course that would work, but it should at least be pursued with consistency – and attempting to take it a little more seriously. The multi-coloured, cartoon-like designs (Chantal Thomas) of the first two acts give way to something a little more plausible, though nowhere near the grand opéra spectacle one probably needs here. Either that, it seems, or a thorough-going deconstruction. Most insulting however was the unbridled kitsch of cardboard cut-out jaws of Hell and angelic heavenly clouds in the final act; if a director cannot manage better than that, then he ought to leave the work to someone who can.

Daniel Oren’s conducting served Meyerbeer equally badly. Entirely lacking in direction, let alone fire, this was listlessness to a degree so advanced that one almost suspected deliberate sabotage. (Alas the result was not interesting enough to justify the charge.) The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House often sounded, reasonably enough, uninspired, though there were many passages in which the musicians rose above the confines of such deathly conducting. What I suspect this music really needs is either the theatrical fire and brimstone of a Riccardo Muti or an approach that would bring to the fore its German roots and implications; in that case, the likes of Christian Thielemann or even Daniel Barenboim would perfectly fit the bill. (Thielemann is about to conduct Rienzi, so it is perhaps not an entirely absurd suggestion.) A third-rate Kapellmeister is unlikely to attract many converts.

The singing was often very good indeed, though, imparting more of a sense of the work’s potentialities than one might have expected. Bryan Hymel was not the strongest of links, alas, but his Robert at least benefited from stamina. Unfortunately, a combination of painful French and still more a lack of French style, singing his lines as if they were Puccini, severely compromised the title role. Otherwise, Marina Poplavskaya turned in by far the strongest performance I have heard from her. Intonational difficulties seemed to have been banished. Her coloratura put Hymel to shame. And she did her best, pretty successfully on the whole, to present Alice as a convincing character rather than the cardboard cut-out to which the production attempted to reduce her (and everyone else). Sofia Fomina, a singer entirely new to me, offered a ravishing performance as Isabelle, the Sicilian princess. Tone and line were impeccable throughout. John Relyea was at least equally impressive as Bertram, devilish darkness very much his thing. His French was a distinct improvement upon most of the cast too. (Do language coaches not instruct their charges that there is a great deal more to the admittedly difficult task of singing in French than just about mustering school-boy pronunciation?) Choral singing was as excellent as one has come to expect from Renato Balsadonna’s Royal Opera Chorus.

Where, then does Meyerbeer stand? Lower than he ought to, I think. Even Wagner, for all the ungrateful abuse he hurled Meyerbeer’s way, would sometimes acknowledge his stronger points. This is not a great work, but nor does it deserve the abuse heaped upon it by people of rather lesser standing than Wagner. I certainly cannot begin to understand how they can endure, even praise, nineteenth-century operas twenty times more trivial and yet react in the way they have to Robert le diable. Is this a mere case of me faire avocat du diable? If so, not to a great extent; I was genuinely interested by what I heard. Whatever Meyerbeer deserves, and I think he deserves considerably more than we grant him, he deserves neither Oren nor Pelly. Nor, I am sad to report, does he deserve a truly horrendous audience, spluttering, chattering, dropping things, laughing uproariously at nothing whatsoever. Who are these people, why do they bother attending at all, and whither might we return them?