Perhaps Giacomo Meyerbeer should have stuck to Plan A: his original idea was to write Robert le diable (Robert the devil) as an opéra comique, in light-hearted vein with spoken dialogue. Then we might have had an entertaining evening. Laurent Pelly seems to agree. His Royal Opera staging is so tongue-in-cheek that the show ends up somewhere between Spamalot spoof, Les Misérables-type musical and operatic witches’ Sabbath. We don’t know whether to take it seriously or not. The children’s book designs (Pelly and Chantal Thomas) are neither spectacular enough to disguise the music’s blandness, nor funny enough to send it up. And far from achieving its shock potential, Lionel Hoche’s nuns’ ballet never gets beyond dancing in chiffon.
In the end Meyerbeer opted for Plan B. He turned his mythical/medieval/ metaphysical fable into a five-act monstrosity, combining the orchestral sophistication of his native Germany, the vocal display he learned in Italy and the visual spectacle craved by the French public. It created such a success at its 1831 premiere that it dictated the style of the Paris Opéra for 50 years, heavily influencing Rossini, Verdi, Berlioz and Wagner.
But then, like the rest of Meyerbeer’s operas, Robert le diable went out of fashion, and there’s nothing in the Royal Opera’s performance to persuade us that posterity got it wrong. Everything Meyerbeer did was done better by other composers. In four hours of music, there is just one memorable aria – Isabelle’s Act Four cavatina, touchingly sung by Patrizia Ciofi with a voice a size too small. To disguise the blandness of Meyerbeer’s invention you need a front-rank cast, which the Royal Opera failed to get. Why, then, did it waste valuable time, energy and artistic resource on such a creaky relic?
There’s nothing the conductor can do to speed up the evening, and Daniel Oren does not try. Marina Poplavskaya’s Alice is another of her quirky, not-quite-complete creations. John Relyea’s Bertram looks more devilish than he sings, and it’s left to the tenors to raise the temperature. Jean-François Borras is a spirited Raimbaut, and Bryan Hymel’s Robert radiates Domingo-like qualities that almost save the evening.