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Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable

Royal Opera House, London, December 6 - 21, 2012.

Photographs by Bill Cooper, courtesy of the Royal Opera House, London


The Royal Opera in London surprised many with its plan to perform Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable after more than 100 years since its last performance there.  The resurrection of this pioneer grand opéra (a co-production with Geneva) was always going to be controversial and, to some extent, left both critics and public a little puzzled as to what to make of it. 

John Allison (Daily Telegraph,  December 20, 2012), having only given it two stars, saw the root of the problem in the choice of a production team "with no obvious feeling for the work" and who did not take the work seriously, while finding Oren's conducting lacking sparkle. Anna Picard (Independent on Sunday, December 9, 2012) was of much the same opinion -  " Tongue in cheek, little fingers raised, Pelly has placed a set of inverted commas around Robert le diable".  On the other hand, William Hartston (, December 10, 2012) thought the irreverence did not go far enough and that the singers took it too seriously.   Fiona Maddocks (The Observer, December 9, 2012) was rather more charitable to production, orchestra and soloists, bearing in mind the various problems that the Royal Opera had to surmount, even though she doubted the quality of the work - "fascinating and ridiculous and something one never need see again".


Comments on the December 21, 2012 performance

(Russell Burdekin)

Deciding how to stage Grand Opera today is a difficult exercise.  The social and political milieu that gave rise to it, not to mention the huge resources that were thrown at it, are irreproducible today and the sentiments expressed are seen as overblown at best.  However, they are expensive to mount, even forgoing the most lavish effects and with almost inevitable cuts, and so some serious artistic purpose needs to be found if it is going to be other than a frivolous sending up of the opera.

In the main, Laurent Pelly found a reasonable, if not ideal, balance providing humour while treating the opera with respect.   He achieved this, on the one hand, through witty sets by Chantal Thomas (the Bosch like mountain in Act 3 being particularly notable) and hamming it up by the chorus with synchronised gesturing at various points while having the principals apply themselves more seriously.   Occasionally the  balance did not seem quite right.  The opening scene lacked some clarity seeming determined to get a laugh with its cartoon knights  and general thrashing about.   The Act 3 scene with the nuns cavorting with Robert in the graveyard was clearly not going to have the impact it had on its original audience and came over as just overlong, although the mass resurrection from the graves provided a superb ending.  The final act was exquisite in some ways but perhaps failed to round the opera off satisfactorily.  From one side of the stage came what presumably was meant to be a demon, which ended up swallowing Bertram, but which looked like an oversized guppy fish.  Then from the other,  Alice appeared on some clouds thus setting up the good versus evil tussle for Robert.  The final scene in the church was a bit perfunctory with just the frame of a church and a crowd milling about in the middle distance.  There was little of the feeling of joyful thanks, which, though naïve to us, rounded off the original appropriately in its terms.  Having Bertram stroll on with his suitcase at the very end,  presumably to find another soul to destroy, was not only wrong in terms of the plot as Bertram had missed his deadline and had been dragged back to hell but looked passé and too knowing, as if Pelly wanted us to be sure that he did not take the opera seriously.

Bryam Hymel's acting  was much more impressive than in the recent RoH production of  Les Troyens, even if his singing has a constraint about it.  John Relyea  was a convincing, if not vocally outstanding,  Bertram  while Marina Poplavskaya, after a shaky start in Act 1, sang impressively in her other scenes.  Given the problems that the Royal Opera had casting Isabelle, its choice of  last minute substitute in Sofia Fomina was inspired to say the least.  A wonderful voice in both its tone and flexibility and who provided the only spine tingling moment of the evening with her "Robert, toi que j'aime". The orchestra under Daniel Oren gave good support and reminded us just how inventive and varied Meyerbeer was in his accompaniment even if his melodies rarely seem memorable or to come to anything.  Thus, overall, this was a production well worth seeing even if perhaps some aspects need to be worked on. 


The Team

Robert   - Bryan Hymel

Bertram  -  John Relyea

Raimbaut - Jean-François Borras

Alice   -   Marina Poplavskaya

Isabelle – Patrizia Ciofi / Sofia Fomina

Alberti -  Nicolas Courjal


Conductor -  Daniel Oren

Director - Laurent Pelly

Set designs - Chantal Thomas

Costume designs - Laurent Pelly

Lighting design - Duane Schuler

Choreography   Lionel Hoche 


The Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra




© Bill Cooper

Robert with the Sicilian Knights



© Bill Cooper

The Tournament



© Bill Cooper

Another view of the tournament with Bertram centre stage



© Bill Cooper

Bertram waiting for Robert with scenes of Hell in the background



© Bill Cooper

Alice trying to gain Robert's soul



© Bill Cooper

Alice with Bertram about to be taken down to Hell





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