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An opera of legend and beauty
on 29 August 2011
Giacomo Meyerbeer was the greatest composer of French operas during the early to mid 19th century. His operas featured many singers and supernumeraries, the tenor and soprano leads were hopelessly, often tragically in love against complex historical backgrounds, and there was always a significant ballet sequence in the third act. Furthermore, the operas were visually enhanced by special stage effects and lighting, and dramatic symphonic music was provided for the orchestra.
Meyerbeer's first overwhelming international success was 'Robert le Diable' (Robert the Devil) (1831). The opera is full of dramatic Gothic intensity and horror. Based on Medieval folk legends from Normandy, the opera deals with the character of Robert, who was born of a woman impregnated by the Devil. It is a story dominated by a theme of redemption. Although Robert has the potential for evil (his father is a demon after all) his humanity and goodness are enabled to shine through in the end: his genuine love for the beautiful and upright Catholic princess Isabelle ultimately redeems him. 'Robert le Diable' contains many elements that were innovative at the time. Some of the material, the handling of a theme of weakness and redemption, was shocking to some. The atmosphere of potent enchantment suffuses the work, and comes to the fore in the famous central scene of the opera, when the ghostly nuns rise from their tombs in the eerie moonlight to lead the vacillating hero into temptation. The ensembles and arias are rich and beautiful to listen to if sung by the properly gifted singers with strong chorus and orchestra.
In this recording, from the Paris Opéra 1985, the singers are all very talented and act convincingly in their roles. June Anderson's Isabelle is moving, beautiful and highly impressive. Anderson's clear soprano voice, as well as her acting abilities, were much to her credit. Her understanding of Meyerbeer's fusion of belcanto and melodrama is perfectly realized in her wonderful and touching rendition of the great act 4 cavatina "Robert, toi que j'aime". Samuel Ramey's performance and his rich bass-baritone are admirable. He impersonates the demonic Bertram completely: menacing, cruel, dark and sinister, and all this conveyed in his voice and acting. Alain Vanzo, nearing the every end of his career, has weaker moments in the fearsome tessitura, but understands the kind of vocal production needed for the very demanding and complex tenor lead.
With these three principal singers performing so splendidly, as well as the fine orchestra of the Paris Opéra sensitively conducted by Thomas Fulton, this recording is the best available of 'Robert le Diable'. The advantage this version has over the others is Samuel Ramey's masterful assumption of Bertram. Other than the imperfections found in the live performance(the sound can be brash, the live footsteps on the stage from the singers/actors, the coughing and occasional laughter or murmurs at times obtrusive), it is still an excellent version. The flaws are easily overlooked given that this was recorded from a live performance, also aired on French radio and television.