When asked about redeeming features by my partner I was very short on examples. Meyerbeer’s score is eventful put inarticulate and at times inappropriate. But the major culprit of making this a dour night out is Laurent Pelly, a director very close to my heart. But this time he has seriously misjudged the mood and setting. Betraying both the source material and making it a slog for audience and singers.
The reputation of Meyerbeer’s music is for bombastic nonsense and a few well crafted arias. What I did not expect was the lack of any dramatic quality or theatrical value in this score, not helped by a meandering plot and a libretto that is a mess. Even the translation caused the odd unintended giggle. Robert’s question to Bertram (referring to the just departed Alice) ‘What has come all over her’ was one such cringeworthy moment. An indicator how far down the pantomime route this staging has taken the work.
Meyerbeer did compose Robert as a three act comic opera and had to modify it into a five act spectacular with ballet to fulfil the requirements of the Paris Opéra. And listening to the music the constant change of mood and tone creates the impression that this was a work written by committee, such is the disparity of the constituent parts that any semblance of integration is woefully absent. One moment we have a seriously bombastic trombone laden intro to the scene between Bertram and Robert with a few sharp exchanges taking place and out of a sudden a break appears in the form of a harp solo, stopping the action on its tracks and just making for a rude interruption. That was one such strange jolt in the plot that takes many more forms throughout the 4 1/2 hours of its duration.
A more sensitive director would have created a more integrated spectacle to counter-balance the plot and patchy music. But Pelly in his near pantomime parody of the opera accentuates all the worst aspects of the composition, from the chorus swaying in tune to the music to the excessive placement of singers on the proscenium and making them sing straight to the audience.
Another aggravating factor of the production was the low quality of the stagecraft, sets being used badly and disappear clumsily. The stage hands being noisy and actually heard very clearly shouting at each other, behind the curtain, during the overture. Seeing hands moving the silly castle in Act Two was a particular low, alongside Alice being wheeled from side stage left on engraved clouds on wheels in Act Five. Allowing a large quantity of confetti from the end of Act Four to occupy the foreground of Act Five was both unsightly and an indication of negligent clean up during set changes. May seem minor but it was an indication of sloppy staging.
The two sets that really worked beautifully were the beguiling mountainous construction in Act Three taking the engraved look to an apogee and using the height of the stage to its advantage. But shamefully let down by the silly pantomime acting which robbed any sense of gravitas. And the set for the notorious nun ballet at the second half of Act Three was the most beautiful gothick construction, the incline adding a great perspective. The rust colour of the rails and the dark stone and greys throughout were a moody addition. Now if only the ballet and the acting overall was more convincing this could have been a heart stopping scene. Obviously the music does not help, when it turns into the most generic music to hop to since Adolphe Adam’s near contemporary La Fille du Danube. But again this lack of cohesion and episodic nature of this scene betrays the revisions made when it was reworked in collaboration with Filippo Taglioni for his super star ballerina daughter Marie. Mayerbeer extended the ballet for the first staging in Berlin and I wonder if the rather conventional and unimaginative middle part of it came from that time.
In Act Four, once more the white lego castle appeared, with quite a few stage hands visible…not inspiring confidence and we got confetti to tie together the wedding theme. Thank heavens for Ciofi’s beautiful rendition of Robert, toi que j’aime which was technically near flawless but somehow lacking in emotion, not helped by the cartoony throne and ridiculous surroundings. But at least the Act was topped by the hilariously hammy breaking of the branch by Robert (the one he stole from the cloister of St Rosalia). At this point I had lost the will to laugh and all I could muster was just a slow head shake.
Act Five was the time for the build your own church template set. If that was meant to be a stand in for Palermo Cathedral it was both a poor idea and rather cheap looking. The Palace of Palermo as seen previously and it’s distinct papery texture was the lap of luxury in comparison. So a lot of people walked in and out of this church structure made out of white icing (ok almost). Nothing of much consequence happened, despite the fact Robert at last learns that Bertram is the devil and we got some pantomime green lighting showing evident fury…as Hymel’s face had a fixed mad look. But then we have the main (very thin) plot mechanism unfold at last…Robert gets given his mother’s will from Alice (and with Poplavskaya sounding quite hoarse by that point) it was a panto scene too far. The way Bertram gets swallowed by a monstrous face at stage right is so ridiculous to be risible but then Pelly adds the final touch with him before curtain fall walking across the stage with his suitcases.
Overall the performance of the orchestra under Daniel Oren was disappointing. The fervour was missing and his cautious reading failed to ignite the more bright parts of the score.
Brian Hymel as Robert sounded stretched to the absolute max while navigating a maze of high Cs and the odd D. The part alongside the one of Isabelle is written in a very idiosyncratic way with very little relation to the rest of the vocal scoring. As Meyerbeer did customise the parts to the famous singers that were asked to sing those parts at the Paris Opéra. Hymel’s voice seemed at odds with the highly lyrical melodic material and despite his heroic struggle the voice took an ugly cast from all the extra effort involved.
Patrizia Ciofi was a good vocal match and delivered her arias with stellar results but remained definitely forgettable after the curtain fell. Her stage presence seems to me to lack any memorable features. She shows up, sings beautifully and not much else. The dramatic investment was just not there. My highlight was her tender rendition of En vain j’espère in Act Two which was unfortunately undermined by being acted for laughs. Maybe replacing Jennifer Rowley four days before the première was not such a great idea.
John Relyea was vocally strong and consistent if not terribly sophisticated. His greatest achievement being his aria and resulting duet with Alice in Act Three where he was allowed to show his dark side by the direction. But somehow his singing through the rest of the show seemed more coaxed out than released with relish and menace.
Marina Poplavskaya on the other hand was a really good fit for the part of Alice. Her at time astringent tone fits well with the material and she sang very well despite having obvious vocal problems caused by a reported cold. In Act Three her Quand je quittai la Normandie had the seed of a great performance but unfortunately her cold led to considerable scoops to the note and a major crack in a fully throated C. In full health I can imagine she would be immensely enjoyable.
The smaller parts were very well performed with a particular highlight the debut of Jean-Francois Borras who had huge amounts of fun being Raimbaut and had the unforced native sound that Hymel or Relyea ultimately lacked. Lets hope we get to see him again at the ROH soon.
As you can tell everyone, this evening at the Royal Opera House was arduous and with very little returns. I had to get rid of my Orchestra Stalls tickets and saved myself a serious amount of money and the aggravation of seeing this seriously off putting production. Maybe a less tongue in cheek production would accentuate the positive aspects of the work but I am afraid Pelly’s dead comic hand gave us an evening verging on the tragicomical.
It was utterly disappointing and possibly the last time any of Meyerbeer’s music will see that particular stage for years to come. Robert Le Diable’s position as a historic curio remains. It is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and also will be released as a DVD/Bluray in 2013, so hopefully you will have the chance to examine closely this production.