Top positive review
29 people found this helpful
on 1 June 2013
The DVD of the London December 2012 production has now appeared, and gives more leisured opportunity for experiencing this famous but unknown work. It is so helpful to those who are considering something new in exploring Meyerbeer, whose works are not generally known these days.
The detail of the cover(s) says it all. The disc comes in a slipcase depicting the gaping mouth of Hell from a medieval Miracle Play. The centre piece features the satanic tempter Bertram. But it is in fact a careful cutout, and when the cover is removed, we are presented by a strikingly attractive montage showing the hero flanked his two heroine mentors (Alice and Isabelle), with his demon-father(Bertram) beneath in infernal fire.
This colourful and rather glamorous image effectively reveals the thematic configuration of this operatic parable of the human dilemma and its spiritual dimension.
It should be said right away that this production is bright and absorbing, rich in iconic allusion and consistently making reference to intriguing artistic prototypes and models in presenting the very rich and complex symbolism of the story
The ROH production of `Robert le Diable' nonetheless did leave much to be desired. At least it was not of the same dreadful nature as the `Eurotrash' productions staged in Berlin (2000, set in a cinema) and Erfurt (2011, set in a mental asylum). The producer Laurent Pelly always has his own perspectives and agendas---as is the case in these days of the "producers' opera". Some of his ideas nevertheless do have considerable innate interest.
Pelly has used a series of medieval artistic concepts to underpin certain symbolic elements in the scenario. The reference to the portrait of Michael the Archangel in act 1 is accompanied by a descending chart, depicting the angel as he appears in a Cathedral fresco. The fairground horses and the overbearing iron frame depict the quandary of the misdirected chivalry of the [anti-]hero.
Act 2 is dominated by the memory of the Duc de Berri's 'Tres Riches Heures', the famous illuminated prayer book of the 15c. The miniature castle, vivid primary colours of the costumes, and the final tableau of the tournament are all based on pictorialism inspired by this illustrious book.
In act 3 the eschatological scenes of Hell use the motif of the Last Judgment, especially as realized by the late 15c Flemish painter Hans Memling and also in the more surreal elements by Hieronymous Bosch (rather than the more illustrious Michelangelo version for the Sistine Chapel).
The final act, which for many in the audience seemed comical,was modelled on concepts drawn from the medieval Mystery and Miracle Plays. (In that theatre the dramatic action would mix contemporary life with Biblical imagery derived from the ancient stories.) The big cartoon clouds in which Alice appears show her heavenly alignment; and the flaming, gaping Mouth of Hell indicate Bertram's servitude to infernal forces, typical in the exaggeration of this popular type of entertainment in the Middle Ages.
All this was largely lost on the audience who, quite understandably, live for the effectiveness of the immediate drama and its stage realization. Pelly's ideas are often too clever for their intended purposes, and also contain an unquantifiable element of irony and disassociation (derived, like so many modern productions, from Brecht's theatre of alienation). But at least the production has some coherence and symbolic schema, and provides a viable and largely serious attempt at realizing the intentions of the creators Scribe and Meyerbeer.
The most famous scene in the opera---and indeed one of the most famous in the whole history of dramatic music---is the legendary Ballet of the Nuns in the central act 3 Cloister Scene. This is regrettably the weakest element in Pelly's production.
Here the Gothic imagery is brought to its highpoint in one of the most imaginative and daring stage concepts in opera, when the damned souls of fallen nuns are summoned from their graves to effect the key moment of diabolical temptation. The evocative power of this scene was a theatrical, musical, iconographic and balletic sensation in 1831, and was to prove a key moment in musical history, when Romantic Ballet was born.
The ghostly forms of the spectral figures, dancing in the moonlight of the ruined abbey, is the key concept of the 'ballet blanc' that would be re-created in almost identical terms in 'Giselle' (the Wilis), 'Swan Lake' (the Swans) and 'La Bayadère' (the Shades), when the spirits of those who have died in grief or disappointment, or are held in magical enthrallment, re-live their vicarious existence in the realm of night and dreams. (These Gothic ideas were of great topicality at the time, when Mary Shelley's prophetic novel of revivification and induced life 'Frankenstein' had appeared only ten years earlier.)
The operatic scenario requires both enchantment and menace, beauty and fearfulness, held in a dramatic tension. It must be seductively beautiful and yet disturbing---a very considerable challenge for a producer and a choreographer.
The ROH presentation sees a stage cluttered to the point of claustrophobia, while the spirits of the dead nuns are realized as half-animated zombies, flopping about in grotesque attitudes of increasing intensity. For the emergence from the tombs (to Meyerbeer's sepulchral music, never surpassed in eerie imaginativeness) this is a good idea---but it is the only idea, and is allowed to dominate the whole scene.
The spirits are supposed to assume a beautiful guise to achieve their delusory purpose. But never do we see them as something dangerously attractive (seduction is the last quality they convey!). The scene becomes heavy and prolonged, and the nocturnal mystery of reverie (or nightmare) is lost. All the advantages of modern staging and the possibilities of advanced lighting techniques are neglected.
Brian Hymel sounds young and consistently incisive in the hugely demanding title role, his tone even throughout the extreme tessitura. Even if his timbre is not especially beautiful, he boldly tackles the very high notes, and he conveys the impulsive but confused young hero with some charm. His sinister mentor Bertram is tackled by John Relyea who has the darkness and depth of hue, but sometimes looking ludicrous in his Victorian frockcoat, does not convey the necessary dominance of presence. In Act 3 (which belongs to Bertram and the interests of Hell), the stage is always too cluttered for free movement. His Evocation of the dead nuns (one of the great bass arias, with the magisterial trombones of the Day of Doom, and the beautiful cantilena of the middle section with its horn fanfares) simply lacks in impact dramaturgically. His role in the decisive final trio is further vitiated by the overly intrusive Miracle Play props.
The two heroines are sung with steady dedication: Patrizia Ciofi has become something of a specialist in the role of Princess Isabelle, and despite the medium size of her voice, sings the beautiful melodies with warmth and engagement, especially her great Aria of Grace in act 4. Once again the staging lacks in atmosphere though, and the great moral implications of this existential moment of choice for the wavering hero is not adequately suggested by the mise en scène (evocative lighting is again lacking). Ciofi's control of the coloratura and drama is sure, and she perfectly understands the heady mixture of drama and bel canto that the music requires. The more lyrical role of Alice, undertaken by Marina Poplavskaya, is vocally a little wooden on the whole, but presented with some vulnerability in act 1, suitable anguish in act 3, and in the great act 5 trio finds the with the requisite power and floating vocalism. Jean-Francois Borras captures the diffident comique requirements of the minstrel Raimbaut, especially during the ironic duo bouffe at the beginning of act 3
Musically the performance is held together well by the conductor Daniel Oren. His tempi are more measured than in the recording from Salerno (the act 4 finale, or what is left of it, is not quite so rushed), and we are allowed to hear more of the famous ballet music. He has sanctioned many cuts in the music, in a manner that would just never happen with any other great composer, so it is better to watch and listen rather than follow with a score. The many abridgments and the requisite splicing of the pieces are managed successfully, however, and the performance moves along with great verve. Meyerbeer's famed orchestration exercises its power (the timpani solo representing the dark enchantment at work in the tournament, the solo bassoons for the necromantic nuns, the solo harp and cor anglais in Isabelle's great cavatina, the mysterious otherworldly duo for the trumpets in the act 5 trio). The disappointment in this visual presentation is the lack of atmosphere, of magical transformation, to give these musical effects their appropriate dramatic milieu. The act 2 Tournament, with its colour and stylized movements, presents the most effective tableau.
It is a real pity that such an opportunity at realizing especially the famous act 3 ballet, a key moment in the history of Romanticism, has been miscalculated. But it is nevertheless a real joy to see something of the dramatic possibilities presented by this wonderful opera (so full of beautiful melodies and powerful drama) staged in a viable, sometimes sensitive and largely effective presentation of some panache.
Do not hesitate to try this extraordinary experience!