MEYERBEER Robert le Diable • Daniel Oren, cond; Carmen Giannattasio (Alice); Patrizia Ciofi (Isabelle); Bryan Hymel (Robert); Alastair Miles (Bertram); Martial Defontaine (Raimbaut); Carlo Striuli (Alberti); Salerno Op Ch; Giuseppe Verdi PO ofRead more Salerno • BRILLIANT 94604 (3 CDs: 183:27) Live: Salerno 3/23/2012
Libretto available online at brilliantoperacollection.com
I wonder if Brilliant Classics realizes how lucky it was to commit, a year ago, to issue this concert performance of Robert le Diable featuring Bryan Hymel. Just another young tenor climbing the ladder of success in March 2012, by the end of December that same year he became the Metropolitan Opera’s hero of the year, salvaging their expensive production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens by subbing for an indisposed Marcello Giordani. Not only did Hymel do a great job at the end of December, but his live HD matinee broadcast in early January was a sensation, launching a major tenor star. I heard that broadcast, and he is the real thing. This recording only emphasizes how good he is and how fortunate we are to have him.
Although not quite as fine a composition as Les Huguenots, written four years later, Robert le Diable is a good example of how Meyerbeer morphed the bel canto style of Rossini and Donizetti into a more musically complex and dramatically spectacular form that became known as “Grand Opéra.” Robert is essentially a light work, a kind of Der Freischütz without the Wolf’s Glen scene. The plot revolves around Robert, who is called “the devil” because he is a lady-killer and also because bad luck seems to follow him; but as in the case of Freischütz we learn that the bad luck doesn’t emanate from him but rather from his companion, the mysterious Bertram. Robert doesn’t discover until after his mother dies that Bertram is his father, and his mother’s note tells him to get as far away from him as possible because he is evil. He sure is: Like Kaspar in Freischütz, he is in league with Satan (or Samiel in Weber’s work) and promises the latter to deliver Robert’s soul to him, but like Max in Freischütz Robert escapes his fate. Along the way we encounter his half-sister, Alice, who is engaged to the minstrel Raimbaut, and Robert’s own fiancée, the Princess Isabelle. In act III, after Bertram leaves Satan’s cave where he receives his instructions for possessing Robert’s soul, he asks Robert to meet him at a cloister in the ruined convent of St. Rosalia, where one of the most famous scenes in the opera takes place: the ballet of the ghosts of debauched nuns. Yaaay! Dancing debauched nuns!
Like several of the best bel canto operas with dumb plots (among them Die Zauberflöte, La sonnambula, and Il Trovatore), the music of Robert le Diable is very good. The liner notes indicate that this is a musically abridged performance, but happily it’s not as badly chopped up as the 1971 Huguenots with Rita Shane, Enriquetta Tarres, and Nicolai Gedda. The only real cut that bothered me—but only a bit—was the omission of one extra repeated verse of the very cute, bop-a-long duet between Raimbaut (the second tenor) and Bertram at the beginning of act III. I have a longer version of this duet on an old recording by tenor Edmond Clément and bass Marcel Journet, and it’s a humdinger, but so is this one…and there is some extra music here not in the Clément-Journet version, so I suppose it evens out. Like Journet, bass Alastair Miles also possesses a trill, also required by the score. My sole complaint of Miles’s Bertram came in his famous aria, “Nonnes, qui reposes,” where his legato was not as smooth or effortless as that of Pol Plançon, who left us an equally famous recording of it—but then again, very few basses then or now had as fine a legato as Plançon.
There is so much to hear in Robert: Sparkling arias, duos, and ensembles galore, most of them absolutely fascinating, and happily we have a mostly outstanding cast all around to perform it. Marie-Christine Forget’s excellent liner notes, particularly the long central paragraph on page 7 of the booklet, explain why Meyerbeer was so highly regarded in his day despite writing essentially “light” operas. Specifically, there was a strong sense of tonal development throughout his operas via the orchestration, which was highly original in its day and related these tonal changes to the characterization and the drama. A famous example in Huguenots is the use of a viola to “announce” Raoul in the introduction to his most famous aria, “Plus blanche” (known in Italian as “Bianca al par”) and, more interestingly, the use of roughly bowed cello chords every time the soldier Marcel appears. This use of “leitmotifs” was a strong influence on Wagner. In Robert the orchestration, if not as highly original, is no less intelligently crafted. Forget also makes note of the fact that librettist Eugène Scribe was a forerunner in conceiving “the idea of a unified work of art.” In his view, as well as Meyerbeer’s, “libretto, music, dance and scenery were…indivisible.”
Excepting Bryan Hymel, whose name is now internationally known (he also sang this opera onstage at Covent Garden just before he flew to New York to rescue the Met Troyens), there are the two sopranos, Carmen Giannattasio and Patrizia Ciofi. The former’s voice is a bit acidic in places, like Renata Scotto during the mid-to-late 1960s, but it is firm and does not wobble, and only an exposed high E? in act III really taxes her. Ciofi, who is often the “girl with the curl,” is in fabulous voice here, sounding like a musically and dramatically superior Joan Sutherland. And she needs it, because except for her lyrical act IV aria, “Robert, toi que j’aime” (represented in famous recordings by Lilli Lehmann and Berthe Augez de Montalant), her music is full of difficulties: leaps up and down across the range, sometimes more than an octave, trills and chains of trills, and fiorature so difficult that it almost makes the role of Queen Marguerite (in Les Huguenots) sound easy.
But of course, as in the case of so many Meyerbeer operas, the most difficult and challenging singing is done by the tenor, and even compared to Raoul’s music Robert’s is—to use an impolite but accurate term—a bitch. In this opera, the tenor is required—not just asked, mind you, but required—to sing stentorian lines at full voice through a two-and-a-half-octave range, capping it with two written high Ds in act III, and moreover to sing fiorature at both full and half voice with several trills thrown in for good measure. Undoubtedly the most famous scena is the act I “Sicilienne,” which begins with the recitative “Au tournoi, chevaliers!” and proceeds through the aria “O fortune à ton caprice,” which calls for difficult vocal runs to be sung at full voice, two high D?s, soft passages, and a trill in the middle. It has long been felt that no tenor in (recorded) history could compete in this aria with the legendary 1905 Fonotipia recording made by the famous French tenor Léonce-Antoine Escalaïs. Well, guess what? Hymel does it too. And not in a recording studio, mind you, where he could re-take it if he slipped up, but live and in person. Coming as it does in act I, I’d say it’s the most difficult first-act tenor aria I’ve ever heard. Mozart’s “Il mio tesoro” sounds like “O sole mio” by comparison.
I cannot let comment pass on conductor Daniel Oren. He, too, understands the Meyerbeer style, which is sort of a hyper-verismo version of bel canto. You can’t sing this music in the pinny-neat, restrained style one normally applies to Mozart or Rossini. Meyerbeer challenged his singers to have rhythmic impetus in every phrase. I once described it as if he wanted his singers to have various vocal “positions,” the way a ballet dancer does, and the conducting must understand and support this kind of singing. Oren does a splendid job.
According to an online opera discography from the U.K., there are six previous recordings of Robert le Diable, all from live performances. For your information, they are as follows:
Sung in Italian, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino 1968: Giorgio Merighi (Robert), Stefania Malagú (Alice), Renata Scotto (Isabelle), Boris Christoff (Bertram), Gianfranco Manganotti (Raimbaut), Giovanni Antonini (Alberti), conductor Nino Sanzogno. LP: MRF (Mauro R. Fuguette) Records MRF-20; CD: Myto 992.206 & Opera d’Oro 1341.
Sung in French, Paris Opéra 1985: Rockwell Blake (Robert), Michéle Lagrange (Alice), June Anderson (Isabelle), Samuel Ramey (Bertram), Walter Donati (Raimbaut), Jean-Philippe Marlière (Alberti), conductor Thomas Fulton. DVD: Encore 2006.
Sung in French, Paris Opéra 1985: Same cast and conductor as above, but Alain Vanzo sings Robert. LP: Legendary Recordings LR-211-4; CD: Legato Classics LCD-229-3, Adonis 85003.
Sung in French, Martina Franco Festival 2000: Jianyi Zhang (Robert), Marina Mescheriakova (Alice), Nelly Miricioiu (Isabelle), Kwangchul Youn (Bertram), Stephan Rügamer (Raimbaut), Evgeny Alexeyev (Alberti), conductor Marc Minkowski. CD: House of Opera CD-689.
Sung in German, Berlin Staatsoper 2001: Jianyi Zhang (Robert), Brigitte Hahn (Alice), Nelly Miricioin (Isabelle), Kwangchul Youn (Bertram), Stephan Rügamer (Raimbaut), Evgeny Alexeyev (Alberti), conductor Marc Minkowski. Mp3 disc: Mike Richter Audio Encyclopedia AE 006 (The Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer).
I’ve heard recordings one and three previously. This one is superior to both, despite the presence of the legendary Boris Christoff as Bertram in 1968 and the very able French tenor Alain Vanzo in 1985. The problem of course, came primarily in Robert’s role: Merighi sounded beefy and clumsy, and Vanzo, for all his elegance of style and fine technique, simply didn’t have the vocal heft for Robert. (I’d be curious, however, to hear Rockwell Blake, who I feel had just the right voice for the part, singing it in the alternate Paris Opéra cast of 1985.) I can recommend this one without reservation, provided that you realize you’re getting an evening’s worth of very well-written light music. If you heard Hymel in Troyens and liked him as much as I did, this is indispensable.
Robert le Diableby Giacomo Meyerbeer Performer:
Carmen Giannattasio (Soprano),
Martial Defontaine (Tenor),
Bryan Hymel (Tenor),
Patrizia Ciofi (Soprano),
Alastair Miles (Bass),
Carlo Striuli (Bass),
Angelo Nardinocchi (Baritone),
Francesco Pittari (Tenor)
Salernitana Giuseppe Verdi Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic Written: 1831; France
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Not ImpressedMarch 4, 2014By Robert Elden (New York, NY)See All My Reviews"Perhaps I was expecting too much as I had read so many good reviews of this Covent Garden production. I'm not anticipating replaying this recording any time soon, especially when there is so much of greater reward to be enjoyed."Report Abuse