Oh dear, oh dear. It turns out that Robert le Diable is a COLOSSAL waste of time, and I am absolutely mystified as to why the ROH would choose to mount a production of it. It's not as if this is one of those scores that is absolutely gorgeous on record, but fails to make convincing drama on stage: this is one of the most consistently banal and abjectly uninspired scores I think I have ever had the displeasure of hearing in an opera house. I know, I know, I should have checked before I went, usually I like to prepare, but sometimes it's good to just take a risk.
The opera opens with an overture that simply sounds unfinished - as if a third of the instruments aren't playing their parts: skeletal, illogical, bare, dull. There follows the most palid brindisi I've ever heard (is it called a brindisi if it's French opera? Whatever.) I sat agog as banality followed banality, an unremitting stream of mild bilge. Act II opens a dull aria for love sick Isabelle, then a bland and utterly unconvincing "ecstatic" cabaletta as she receives a letter for him. And so on for the first interminable 75 minutes, not a single moment of interest, not one melody, idea or motive stuck in the mind, nothing developed, no texture or vocal line approaching the interesting, let alone beautiful. What is worse, is that the music is not just thin on ideas, it's also aurally "thin": pages and pages of dessicated, empty score, the orchestra barely congealing into a whole.
Laurent Pelly's production tries its best with this aimless, soulless mess. He takes it as seriously as he can, but when the drama is so ludicrous and trite, and the music so lacking in tension and dramatic thrust, what is a director to do? The very substance of the work is cliché and contrivance.
His usual talent for excellent design and visual congruence with the score was not forthcoming (unless it was in the ironic sense mentioned below). The setting is fundamentally mediaeval, though it's very stylised, and even cartoony in places - this is not evocative music, and I wonder if Pelly's primary colours, card board cut out landscapes and skeletal buildings are in some way meant to be a reflection of the sound of the score (even unconsciously). Usually I am a huge fan of Pelly's wit and soft Gallic charm, but there wasn't enough for him to latch on to here, and he's not in his home territory of comedy. Characters are constantly addressing the audience, and Pelly does his old trick of making the Chorus quickly turning their heads to the audience every time they sing. There's a lot of pat moralising in the libretto, and probably Pelly is trying to make it addressed to us the audience, but it just didn't work. I felt sorry for him though - what on earth was he meant to do with this bloated corpse?
Act III picks up somewhat, and we get a brilliantly choreographed ballet (by Lionel Hoch) of sexy undead nuns that have been called from the grave to seduce Robert, though by that stage I no longer cared about the why. The music for this section is again amazingly un-apt for the subject matter. In Act IV we finally get some music that at least holds the attention, even if it isn't very good, and Isabelle gets a pretty aria. Notable is a bizarre unaccompanied trio which is also bad music but arrestingly strange. Act 5 reverts to total banality, though the choruses and idiom become slightly fuller. In case you haven't noticed, I'm really finding it difficult to make myself continue to write about it.
The singing was quite good. I have banged the Bryan Hymel drum rather loudly on this blog, after what was the best Rusalka Prince that I've ever seen, and a decent stab at Enée, and here he was more than respectable. I think French doesn't suit him very well as it does funny things to his tone (it becomes covered and swallowed in the high reaches), but Robert is a role with several high Ds (!!!) in it, and I would not for a moment have imagined that he would be able to handle these. It's a relentlessly high part requiring great solidity and stability, which are his strengths, but he did seem a little taxed here though I find it difficult to think of many tenors who wouldn't be. Acting wise he did his best in this hammy role.
As Alice, Marina Poplavskaya sung the best I have ever heard her. For the first time I wasn't completely mystified by her continued employment by top opera houses. She has about five gorgeously full notes in the middle voice that have a mezzo like depth and colouration, and she is able to integrate this well with her lower range. The problem is her top which sounds like it's coming from a different throat and body. In the past when I've seen her she's been all over the place pitch wise, and displayed significant spread above the stave, but here these things were both impressively under control for her, and nothing she sang was actively offensive. But she does this horrible blatantly unsupported pianissimo in high lying passages all the time, which is so fluttery that she finds it difficult to maintain air flow, let alone a regular vibrato. It's amazing that she continues to do it, when the result is so embarrassingly inconsistent. I really do wonder whether she is really a mezzo - along with the already mentioned characteristics, like mezzos, she has a much easier time above the stave when the notes are loud (though relative to other big name mezzo sopranos, let alone sopranos she is still extremely unstable here). This voice is a bundle of contradictions though one occasionally feels that its easy size and those middle notes suggest that she could be much better than she is. The paradox exemplified in one note: there was one absolutely gorgeous sustained tone she sung in Act IV, straight in the middle of her sweet spot range wise, which was gleamingly rounded, unforced and deliciously dark. But after five seconds of truly golden sound, the vibrato wavered and the next five second were choked, wobbly and stressed. She got some genuine cheers at the curtain but icily barely acknowledged them. I remain baffled by her as an artist and performer.
The controversy with the role of Isabelle has been well documented elsewhere, and I won't go into it, other than that I feel very strongly for Jennifer Rowley who has been horribly treated in this whole episode. Patrizia Ciofi, whisked in at the last minute, also gave the best performance I have ever seen her give - making the voice sound lighter and fresher than it usually is, but also her legato was effortlessly smooth and controlled in her aforementioned Act IV aria, the vibrato narrow and attractive, and it was probably the musical highlight of the evening. The bottom of the range is atrophied (no chest notes, no volume, relying on the "Gheorghiu cover" for low notes to have some sort of presence which of course doesn't work), and the top is slightly hoarse, with the very top notes uncomfortably intense and slightly police siren like, but mostly I was surprised by what a good sound she was making, given that this is not at all a naturally beautiful or particularly distinctive voice. Quite impressive. She is an unsettling presence on stage I've always found, but she was very good here.
John Relyea, not a name I'd heard before, has a quite brilliant true bass voice that is large, very dark, steely, extremely even toned and very well produced. It's not a terribly warm sound, but his technique is quite formidable and he can sing high with apparent ease - I'm sure that he will make a significant Wagner singer in the near future. Maybe he'll be hired for the upcoming Parsifal? Or maybe he's not singing Wagner yet. By some distance the most impressive voice on stage and he reminded me quite a lot of a young Samuel Ramey.
The supporting cast were largely excellent, especially Jean Francois Borras as Raimbut. Conductor Daniel Oren did absolutely nothing to sell the score, and drew an unexcited, mediocre sound from the orchestra.
Avoid. Despite decent-ish singing, this opera is a complete waste of everyone's time.