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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!
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on 1 September 2015
I bought this despite being aware of other reviewers critical to this production because I could not see that a Blu-Ray of another production would be available in the near future. So rather than knowing nothing about this opera I went ahead.
The opera shows potential on this Blu- Ray which makes it understandable why it was so influential in the 19th century But except for the gambling scene in Act 1, Act 3 and the last twenty minutes it lacked any tension that could have been brought about by more powerful singers and a far more credible production. There is good singing from John Relyea, Marina Poplavskaya who is showing better projection and Patrizia Ciofi especially in her wonderful Act 4 Aria but earlier seemed to lack belief . The artificial colours of the horses which match those of the women's courtly dresses and lighting are hideous. They are supposed to resemble, or so I am told by Laurent Pelly on this Blu-Ray, those used on illuminated manuscripts.But these are natural colourings and can't compare with those used in this production
I am thankful that I was on holiday and missed this production at the opera house..
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The folly and the controversy surrounding the Royal Opera House's production of Meyerbeer's 2012 Robert Le Diable have been extensively reported elsewhere, from the cast changes and departures through to its critical mauling in the press. Those weaknesses are still apparent here, but they can be offset to a large degree in this case just by the rare opportunity to see one of the greatest works of 19th century opera performed on the stage. The challenge that faced director Laurent Pelly to stage this unfashionable monster of the Grand Opera repertoire however was never an enviable one. He may not entirely have succeeded, but in a way Pelly does capture the spirit of Meyerbeer to some extent. Perhaps it's more of a case that audiences still aren't ready for Meyerbeer.

Which is understandable, but a pity nonetheless. If nothing else Robert le Diable is an opera experience like no other. Musically and in terms of plotting it's not the most sophisticated, but Meyerbeer packs the five acts of the opera so full of melodies and dramatic development, underlining it with grand choral refrains, lyrical expression, comic interplay and over-the-top gothic imagery with some ballet sequences thrown in for good measure, that it's never anything less than pure value-for-money entertainment. Pelly's production, unfairly criticised I feel, attempts to put all the colour and the darkness of the work up there on the stage in the sets and costumes, and he does so rather well. It's faithful to the spirit of the work, playing it straight where it ought to be, exaggerating in other places, but never stooping to making fun of the melodramatic developments and wild declarations.

Aiming for the middle ground between period fidelity and modernism, there's a "cardboard cutout" feel to the scenery then that is reminiscent in places of David Hockney's designs for the Glyndebourne production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. It's like an ancient black and white engraving that has been garishly hand-coloured, or even a medieval tapestry that might lack realistic detail and proportion, but nonetheless has the power to evoke the history and the values of another period far from our own. Sometimes this works exceptionally well (Act III's vision of Hell on a mountain pass like something out of the mind of Hieronymus Bosch), at other times the imagery feels a little forced (the ultimate battle between the good of Alice and the evil of Bertram in Act V), and sometimes it's just a little too kitsch and reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail to take seriously (the colour of the medieval tournament in Act II). I'm in two minds about the zombie sisters of St Rosalie during the opera's most famous/notorious Dance of the Nuns ballet.

Pelly's staging however is sympathetic to the shifts of tone in the work itself and gets fully behind it, never attempting to make it into something else entirely with conceptual cleverness. Daniel Oren too shows great feeling for the work, its rhythms and variations, and - regardless of what you think of the merits or otherwise of Meyerbeer's score - it's simply a delight to see this type of work being put through its paces. What seems to be more of a problem however is that we really don't have the singers for this type of work any longer. As Robert, Bryan Hymel's voice might not be to everyone's taste, and it does start to grate and go a little bit wayward as the opera progresses through to the final acts, but the effort is considerable. No less demanding is the role of Bertram and John Relyea handles it superbly and with great character. Despite her commitment, Marina Poplavskaya however is terribly miscast here, as is Patrizia Ciofi, who really doesn't have a large enough voice for this style of work, a whimper that is lost in the orchestration and big choruses.

For all its flaws however, this is a sincere and a valiant effort to stage one of the great opera masterworks of yesteryear. The recording of the work and its presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray (which comes in a die-cut slipcase) is of course of the highest quality in both image and sound. The extra features however are slim, with only a Cast Gallery and a five-minute presentation on the legacy of the work, which does nonetheless give you an idea of the challenges of putting it on. There's an essay and a full synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The disc is BD50, Full-HD, Region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.
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on 25 July 2013
An early outing for opera's abiding obsession with devil/disciple relationships the now rarely performed Robert Le Diable ends with the triumph of the young adventurer of the title over his former manipulator who finally disappears through the open mouth of hell. Until this 2012 production from Covent Garden Meyerbeer's admirers were best served by a 1985 radio recording from Paris with stand-out performance from Samuel Ramey as the evil Bertram and June Anderson as Isabelle, Robert's love interest. Nearly thirty years later there is now a DVD version available to excite further interest.

This is a well sung production with experimental staging, far removed from traditional concepts, that includes hearty knights clad for war, vividly coloured horses and small movable castles. There is a continuity that does complement the action and production values are fortunately far removed from anything resembling a Zurich style mishmash. It is unfortunate that in a misplaced attempt at marketing the DVD's producers have decided to enclose the jewel case in an outer cover depicting the mouth of hell. This necessary property makes only a brief appearance in the final act but its use in a blatant attempt to boost sales will offend as well as attract customers. This is yet another example of Covent Garden's questionable priorities for the booklet, although containing an informative essay and a synopsis, lacks both chapter headings and time frames.

Certain reviewers have complained about the staging but it is hard to find fault with the fine orchestral playing under the baton of Daniel Oren, the work of a busy chorus and the contributions of the four leads comprising the Met stalwart John Relyea as Bertram, the very experienced Patrizia Ciofi as Isabelle and the Covent Garden regular Marina Poplavskaya as the innocent and well intentioned Alice. Possibly the most impressive impact is made by Bryan Hymel in the title part. Blessed with a robust presence that is matched by a fine tenor voice, Hymel dominates the stage in this seriously demanding role. He is at his best in the act four duets with Isabelle and the trios of acts three and five with Bertram and Alice.

Although much of the opera has been forgotten the ballet sequence of the fallen nuns has maintained a tentative foothold in the repertoire. Eschewing anything remotely associated with the traditional the risen nuns of this production are far removed in their unrestricted passions from the elegant elemental beings that grace productions of Giselle and La Sylphide. This salacious interlude has the power to offend but is totally in character with the strong physical nature of the production.

What would the founding father of the French grand style have made of this production?. Perhaps at some future date an opera house with ample pockets will attempt a more traditional undertaking. Here Meyerbeer is well served by two productions available on DVD. In a final homage to Dame Joan Sutherland Australia Opera mounted an appropriately costumed version of Les Huguenots. The composer's last opera L'Africaine is well served by San Francisco's lavish production which benefits from the fine singing of Placido Doming and Shirley Verrett

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VINE VOICEon 15 June 2013
I was in the audience at the ROH on the evening this performance was recorded and I can well remember the keen sense of anticipation I felt at the prospect of witnessing a legendary opera that hadn't been performed there for over 100 years. But as soon as the curtain went up I started to get a sinking feeling. Those hearty rollicking knights appeared to have wandered on to the stage from some neighbouring performance of Spamalot and did I detect two of the main protagonists, Robert and Bertram, sitting amongst them dressed in Victorian clobber, one of them in a stovepipe hat rather resembling Abe Lincoln? Yes, I did. And I knew immediately it was going to be one of those kind of productions. As fellow Meyerbeer enthusiast Owl points out in his adjacent review this production thankfully turned out not to be an egregious example of Eurotrash, but it certainly betrays many of the failings of Regietheater in giving us too many half-baked and wooly ideas that simply don't knit together in a way that illuminates the opera or provides a compelling theatrical experience. Thus, in addition to the Monty Python knights, we had fairground horses, toytown castles and hilarious cardboard cutouts to depict good and evil (which again reminded me of Terry Gillam's animations for Monty Python)and in the famous (or should that be infamous?) ballet of the spectral nuns a stage so crowded with tombs that dance was rendered all but impossible and the nuns just writhed around hysterically like Dracula's daughters in a lurid Hammer horror film although the effect was ludicrous rather than chilling. Now, I'm well aware of the allusions to the mediaeval world that director Laurent Pelly was hoping we'd catch and deem meaningful but nearly all of them belong to the very late mediaeval period . The toytown castles were meant to evoke the illustrations of the Duc de Berry's Tres Riches Heures, an idea successfully essayed by Olivier in his film version of Henry V, but in this production missing the "right look" by about a mile. The cartoonish cardboard cutouts of good and evil were meant to evoke visual symbols from the mediaeval morality plays but I have to confess that when the curtain went up on the final act I was one of those in the audience who laughed, and then almost cried to see one of the most gripping and powerful acts in Grand Opera, in which the forces of good and evil fight for possession of Robert's soul, reduced to the level of comedy. Pelly's one single good idea, a recreation of Hans Memling's Last Judgement with the fires of hell consuming sinners like me, seemed curiously divorced from the preceding and succeeding images, and yet it might have set the right tone and atmosphere for what should be a spine-tingling gothic romance. But let's not forget that Robert Le Diable is set in a much earlier mediaeval world. Robert Guiscard was in fact the father of William The Conquerer, so you might wonder why Pelly didn't give us evocations of the Bayeaux Tapestry or some Romanesque or Byzantine glitter. What we get, though, is a colourful trivialisation and subversion of an opera that will leave you puzzling why it had audiences swooning in the aisles at the 1831 premiere and thereafter for most of the 19th century, an approach which I suspect betrays a lack of confidence in the strength of the story and the music by Pelly and his production team. A similar lack of confidence is evidenced by several cuts in the score although I find Meyerbeer's longeurs no worse than Wagner's and cuts therefore no more acceptable.

Operaphiles will know that this production was fraught with casting problems with Juan Diego Florez dropping out and the ROH ditching the soprano Jennifer Rowley in favour of Patrizia Ciofi at the last minute (so late in fact that the programmes had already been printed with credits for Ms Rowley and photos of her.) Ms Ciofi is an experienced exponent in the part of Princess Isabelle; her soprano is fine-grained and a tad soubrettish but I thought she sang beautifully and her voice projected well in a large house; I was impressed by Bryan Hymel's stalwart and stylish performance as Robert, a demanding role, in which he fearlessly nailed all the top Cs; and likewise by John Relyea who, as the devilish Bertram, sang with plenty of the requisite firm dark tone, although in his Abe Lincoln outfit his characterisation leaned more towards the genial than the sinister. Marina Poplavskaya was perhaps a tad overparted as Alice. Daniel Oren in the pit missed none of the drama or beauty in Meyerbeer's score, although his efforts were frequently undermined by elements of the production.

I wouldn't want to deter you from acquiring the DVD of this performance, after all we're not likely to have a plethora of recorded performances of this great opera and the musical values are pretty good. But I have to be honest and say I don't think this production has done anything to further the cause of Meyerbeer or to rehabilitate his fortunes. The ROH's last stab at Meyerbeer, if I remember correctly, was Les Huguenots, a terrible production that sank almost immediately without trace. Their production of Robert Le Diable was shared with a couple of other European houses and I have a feeling, given the rather tepid critical reaction it enjoyed, that it won't be winging its way back any time soon. I wonder how long we'll have to wait until the next Meyerbeer production at the ROH?
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on 3 February 2014
I had not heard of this opera before but I read reviews of it on your website and decided to buy it. I was not disappointed and the reviews were correct. I was very impressed with all the singers, in particular Bryan Hymel who I had seen previously in an opera. I will be watching out for him in future! I thoroughly enjoyed it, the music was excellent.
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on 9 August 2013
After 25 years or so listening to pirate recordings, trying to catch some details from the blurry video of the Paris Opera production from 1985, ROH finally gives us a great and enjoyable (although heavily cut) version of this work by Meyerbeer, an opera that changed music history when first performed 182 years ago. Director Laurent Pelly and his team do their best to make a somewhat dated story appealing to modern audiences, using strong primary colors and clever cardboard, cutout-style scenery to tell us a medieval legend imbued with romantic, religious and supernatural elements -demons, chivalry, princesses, nuns, ghosts - so popular in its time but now largely out of fashion in our high-tech world. All singers involved make a great job (this is not an easy opera to sing) including the chorus, which have a good share of farcical choreographed episodes in this production. This is understandable given the comedy-like style director Pelly has imposed on some scenes, specially those where the character of Isabelle appears: she's no longer the classic, old-fashioned romantic heroine but a whimsical, nervous, capricious girl instead. This kind of acting, however, robs the music much of its beauty and elegance to the point of trivializing it, doing no favor to the composer's cause. Otherwise things go pretty smooth. The tournament scene from Act II is great, as well as the special effects in Act III where Bertram summons the hell forces, much in line with the storybook style of the production. A hot number is the (in)famous Ballet of the Nuns, also from Act III, with its no-holds-barred, frenzied, sexy choreography. The music flows excitingly thanks to the expert conducting of Daniel Oren. Robert was the model on which many of the greatest 19th century French operas were written. You will hear echoes of it in works by Gounod, Bizet, Thomas and even Offenbach, which attest for its long lasting influence and popularity. The DVD comes in a nice, attractive package, with great, clear picture and sumptuous, detailed sound. Shame on the producers, however, who did not include Spanish subtitles. They lost a great marketing opportunity: more than 450 million people speak the language, so why the omission??
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on 4 August 2013
I went to a great deal of trouble and expense to see this at the ROH and was rather disappointed that a masterpiece they have not put on for so long should be treated in this rather odd way. The DVD really confirms for me what I thought - this is a masterpiece that deserves better. Laurent Pelly's direction is just too clever for words and he almost ignores the spirit of the piece. On the other had it is well sung and I would commend this DVD to anyone interested in Meyerbeer's music.
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on 5 February 2014
What is so special about this DVD is that it allows modern audiences to thrill at a long-forgotten opera that held the entire musical world in thrall when first it appeared in 1831. Yes: the entire world, including such geniuses as Wagner and Heinrich Heine, whose jealousy later made them Meyerbeer's bitterest enemies, contributing in no small measure to his total disappearance from the world's opera houses for a century or so.

Robert is a story of human weakness, of good versus evil, and it is laced with magic. How can one possibly relate to such a childish plot in modern times? Of course, all normal operas have ridiculous plots, but we have seen them so many times that this no longer bothers us. However, Robert is a totally different kettle of fish, having last been staged in London in 1890.

But modern audiences know how to enjoy such stories thanks to Monty Python movies and TV shows. This was the crucial setting that enabled director Laurent Pelly to bring us this wonderful music, performed by outstanding singers and actors, against a backdrop whose weirdness has an appropriate familiarly. At present, this is the only DVD of Robert le Diable but, as the years go by, and many more will doubtless appear, Covent Garden's production will surely long be the benchmark against which all the others will be judged.
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on 12 February 2014
This was one of the foundations of 19th century French Grand Opera and was much imitated by later (and better?) composers. It has one of those silly opera plots accompanied by good music. At last, we have a clear recording of studio quality with a top-flight cast. Meyerbeer's creative use of orchestral colouring, and skill at building ensembles are demonstrated well. The production manages to convey the plot clearly, if you read all the subtitles, while taking a tongue in cheek approach to its credibility. The work is not for opera novices, perhaps, but this is an intelligent interpretation with high musical standards. Well sung and acted, it is entertaining throughout.
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