Courjal, Nicolas


DiableGiacomo Meyerbeer - Robert Le Diable

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - 2012 | Daniel Oren, Laurent Pelly, Bryan Hymel, John Relyea, Jean-François Borras, Marina Poplavskaya, Patrizia Ciofi, Nicolas Courjal, Jihoon Kim, Pablo Bemsch, David Butt Philip, Ashley Riches, Dušica Bijelić | Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The folly and the controversy surrounding the Royal Opera House’s production of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable have been extensively reported elsewhere, from the cast changes and departures through to its critical mauling in the press. While I’ve no doubt that a full evening of a misconceived five-act Meyerbeer opera could well have been a painful experience live at the Royal Opera House, a filmed recording of the production is however another thing entirely. That’s not to say that some of the problems with the production are any less evident, but there are compensating factors that one can perhaps better appreciate from the comfort of one’s own living room.

Even the undoubted weaknesses in the production 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. Meyerbeer was one of the most important and composers of his time, an influence on both Verdi and Wagner, but his extravagant style and grandeur hasn’t remained fashionable, and even his greatest works - huge successes in their day - have fallen from the popular repertoire. Such is the case with Robert le Diable, a work which drew wide acclaim from fellow composers, critics and achieved wide popular international success following its premiere in 1831. The work was last performed at Covent Garden however in 1890, and it hasn’t been performed much anywhere in the world over the last century.

The fundamental difficulty with putting on a staging a work of 19th century Grand Opera does indeed have to do with it being at odds with popular tastes and fashions. It’s not so much a reflection on the quality of the work as the fact that modern audience has very different expectations from opera, and the old-style can be hard to swallow for a modernist, post-modernist, post-post-modernist audience. It’s like expecting a reader of Harlan Coben thrillers to adapt to reading Walter Scott, or for readers of Ian McEwan to engage with the themes of Victor Hugo. The challenge that faced director Laurent Pelly then is not an enviable one. He may not entirely have succeeded, but although his production for the Royal Opera House was heavily criticised 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 an Hieronymus Bosch painting), 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).

In most cases however, even those mentioned above, these are valid responses to the nature and tone of the material itself. Stravinsky and Meyerbeer may have little in common (Gounod’s Faust might be a better model to consider), but Robert le Diable does indeed relate an exaggerated morality tale of the battle between good and evil similar to the one in The Rake’s Progress. Here, Robert of Normandy is rumoured to be the son of beautiful princess who married a demon from Hell. Robert however has the choice to follow a path of righteousness, and demonstrates his leniency by sparing the life of the minstrel Rimbaut who relates the story of Robert the Devil to assembled knights at an inn in Palermo. He could choose also to win the hand of Isabelle in the traditional way through a tournament, but despite the warnings of his late mother and his foster sister Alice, is laid astray by the machinations of his companion Bertrand, the real devil of the work. If he steals a magic branch from the tomb of Saint Rosalie, he can win Isabelle by other means.

Barring some questionable choices - I’m still in two minds about the choreography of the zombie sisters of St Rosalie during the opera’s most famous/notorious Dance of the Nuns ballet - Pelly’s staging 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. There is however one other problem associated with putting on a Meyerbeer opera that the best efforts of the conductor, director and the Royal Opera House seem powerless to influence. It seems like we really don’t have the singers for this type of work any longer.

It’s understandable that singers who would be suited to or capable of singing Meyerbeer are obviously more focussed on the greater career opportunities afforded by singing Wagner or bel canto. Even good Verdi singers are thin on the ground nowadays and the demands of Meyerbeer are often greater. Singing the title role, Bryan Hymel proves that he is up there and his performance is not only commendable, it’s almost heroic. His 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 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, her singing sounding like a whimper that is lost in the orchestration and big choruses.

It’s this aspect of the production that is the most problematic. While there are advantages to watching Robert le Diable on the screen that allow one to better to appreciate the full Meyerbeer experience that Oren and Pelly recreate, it only emphasises the unsuitability of some of the singing. There’s no doubting the commitment of the performances however, and for all its flaws 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 on this work. 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.

MignonAmbroise Thomas - Mignon

Grand Théâtre de Genève, 2012 | Frédéric Chaslin, Jean-Louis Benoît, Sophie Koch, Paolo Fanale, Diana Damrau, Nicolas Courjal, Carine Séchaye, Emilio Pons, Frédéric Goncalves, Laurent Delvert | Geneva, 16 May 2012

There seems to have been some initial confusion over whether Mignon was destined to be a grand opera or an opéra comique. The libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré was first offered to Meyerbeer, who refused it, then Gounod, before being taken on by Ambroise Thomas now in his 50s at the time of writing in 1866, as a commission for the Opéra Comique in Paris. Based on Goethe’s famous Bildungsroman, ‘The Apprentice Years of Wilhelm Meister’ (1795), there were however certain changes that required that altered the original intentions of the work, such as expanding the role of Philine for a lyric soprano and rewriting the ending from the tragic conclusion of the original. Whatever the intentions of the original librettists, Thomas found a perfect expression for the work in the lighter of the two opera styles, composing with pleasant melodies as well as with delicacy for the emotional content and Mignon was a great success, the greatest of his career thus far (two years before his next success in Hamlet), the work even surviving past the fire that destroyed the Salle Favart in 1887 to run beyond a 1000 performances in Paris.

Those qualities in Thomas’s writing, particularly in the characterisation assigned to each of the main roles, was certainly evident in the 2012 revival production of the opera at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, which benefitted moreover from the outstanding casting of the French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch in the title role of Mignon. A young innocent of indeterminate gender who has been brought up by gypsies, Mignon has been forced to perform what seems to be a rather humiliating egg dance for the public, finally refusing to continue any longer at a show in the courtyard of a country inn where Wilhelm Meister is present. Taking pity on her predicament and attracted to the ambiguous nature of this strange creature dressed in boyish clothes, Wilhelm buys her freedom from Jarno, the leader of the gypsies. To protect her from the attentions of a crazed troubadour, Lothario, mad from the loss of his daughter, Wilhelm allows Mignon to accompany him as his page.

Mignon

References to such figures, many derived from Goethe’s Mignon, are common in literature in figures such as Lolita as well as in the cinema - Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada, for example - but some such as Lulu have also travelled through to opera and continue to exercise the same strange fascination. In some respects, the Mignon figure, looking for a father-figure, a lover, a husband, contains a purity which can inspire the artist (who can forget the poetic raptures of Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita?), but the same figure can also reflect darker and more ambiguous impulses that are protective and dangerously possessive. It’s perfect material for musical and poetical expression, but while there is a great deal of such qualities in Thomas’s writing, his opera Mignon perhaps doesn’t always reflect both sides of the coin with equal success. It’s a lovely little opera to listen to, but perhaps a little old-fashioned and restricted in this respect by the conventions of the opéra comique style.

It could be enlivened certainly through inventive stage direction and perhaps an updating of the settings, but there was nothing like that in Jean-Louis Benoît’s production for Geneva. If the props however were reduced to a bare minimum on the stage, it was to leave all the more room for it to be filled with singers and chorus, all dressed in fine, period costumes. A little character was introduced with a humorous setting up of chairs which became a game of skittles every time someone made a rushed entrance to the stage through them, and there was a minor skit involving the flames that destroy Baron Rosemburg’s castle at the end of the second act, but little else of note to suggest a theme or concept being explored. Even so, with the fine costume designs and the actual stage direction - Diana Damrau in particular being a swirling, sparkling presence as Philine - the production looked well and was never less than effective for the purposes of a traditional, theatrical presentation.

It was left to the singers to bring whatever they could to the roles through the performances. Sophie Koch brought a fabulous air of wistful melancholy to the famous aria ‘Connais-tu le pays où fleurent l’oranger?/Le pays des fruits d’or et les roses vermeilles?’ (“Do you know the land where orange flowers bloom?/A land of golden fruit and crimson roses?”), which along with her boyish appearance, lent some interesting ambiguity to the androgynous character and how she is perceived by both Wilhelm and Lothario. There was a hint here of other depths that could be explored, but neither Thomas’s music not the direction seemed capable of drawing anything more out of this as the performance progressed. Koch however was fabulous in the role, singing a choice mezzo-soprano role wonderfully. Taking on a broad range of roles that stretch from this light lyrical opéra comique to heavier Wagner roles, there really doesn’t seem to be anything she isn’t capable of, and she sounds more and more impressive each time I hear her.

Mignon

It was a double luxury then to also have Diana Damrau as Philine in this production. She played a crucial part in the success of the production, and her role is also crucial to making the opera work so well. Her flowing coloratura in the soprano range certainly adds considerable colour to the range of voices as well as some well-needed sparkle to a story that lacks the depth that it might have acquired in a tragic grand opera style, but there’s much more to her character than that and the role serves a vital dramatic function. Philine, along with sidekick Laërte as the leaders of a bohemian troupe of actors, is the catalyst that brings Wilhelm Meister and Mignon together, but Philine also has other outgoing feminine qualities and her flirting introduces the necessary element of conflict that pushes the romantic element to the fore. Her extravagant character and the extravagant singing that goes along with it were well-served here by Diana Damrau. Her ‘Je suis Titania la blonde’ polonaise, given after a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the baron’s castle, was every bit as rivetting and magnetic as it ought to be.

The two exceptionally talented leading ladies were well supported by an excellent Paolo Fanale as Wilhelm Meister, by Nicholas Courjal’s beautifully lucid baritone Lothario, and by Emilio Pons as Laërte. All of them sang very well, but none were really able to make much more of the parts beyond the limitations of the original characterisation and within the constraints of the unexceptional stage direction. A good energetic and entertaining performance from Carine Séchaye in the trouser-role of Frédéric also added to the overall quality and dynamic of the singing. Frédéric Chaslin conducted the orchestra of the Suisse Romande delightfully through Thomas’s lovely score, the production using the original version of the opera with spoken dialogue (only a few short passages) rather than the later revised German version with recitative that, like Thomas’s similar rearrangement of Hamlet, attempted to come closer to the tragic ending for an audience more familiar with the original work. The happy ending however seemed very much in line with the lightness and delicacy of touch that characterised the whole production here in Geneva.