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.