Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Extravaganza of the Soul, Sparsely Staged ; Covent Garden Skimps on Meyerbeer Work That Wowed 1830s Audiences

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Extravaganza of the Soul, Sparsely Staged ; Covent Garden Skimps on Meyerbeer Work That Wowed 1830s Audiences

Article excerpt

Covent Garden skimps in its production of Meyerbeer's "Robert Le Diable," which historically has wowed audiences as a grand production and which Chopin called a "masterpiece."

Directors who don't delve into the background of works they stage aren't doing their jobs properly, but inquiries can lead to unsettling results. Laurent Pelly could have read in any reference book that Meyerbeer originally conceived the idea of basing an opera on the Norman legend of "Robert le Diable" for Paris's Opera Comique, but that circumstances led him to write the work for the Paris Opera instead.

Operas written for the Opera Comique are not necessarily comic, as works like Cherubini's "Medee" attest, but we know from Mr. Pelly's productions of Offenbach operettas and Donizetti's "Fille du Regiment" that this director has a gift for comedy. For whatever reason he put that gift to work in the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden's new staging of "Robert le Diable" ("Robert the Devil"), a chivalric tale of the supernatural in which the title character is saved from the powers of Hell by the redemptive love of a woman (shades of Wagner operas to come).

His production has audiences drawing comparisons -- surely for the first time in history -- between a French grand opera and Monty Python's "Spamalot," thanks to the way knights in heavy armorial suits (Mr. Pelly also designed the costumes) make jerky synchronized movements, and to sets by Chantal Thomas depicting the Sicilian princess Isabelle's palace as a child's paper cutout castle. There is room for humor in French grand opera -- one of the numbers is labeled "duo bouffe" -- but Mr. Pelly abuses the privilege, most damagingly in the stirring final trio.

Here, forces of good, represented by Robert's foster-sister Alice, and of evil, represented by Robert's father Bertram (an incarnation of the devil), vie for Robert's soul. But Alice appears in a bed of clouds, like an emissary of heaven, and Bertram sings in front of a grizzly black-and-white cutout of a dragon's head. No wonder the audience laughed when Robert agonized over his dilemma. Nor did the celebrated ballet for the ghosts of debauched nuns -- naughty girls sent to convent to be straightened out -- realize anything like its erotic potential.

A work that changed the course of opera history after a staggeringly successful premiere in 1831 deserves better. Chopin, an astute commentator on Parisian opera, proclaimed, "If ever magnificence was seen in the theater, I doubt that it reached the level of splendor shown in 'Robert' ... It is a masterpiece ... Meyerbeer has made himself immortal."

Meyerbeer, a German Jew who thrived in Paris, was a first-rate musician with a genius for stagecraft and a self-prescribed mission to entertain by wowing an audience. …

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