Saturday, 22 December 2012

Robert le diable

Royal Opera House, 21 December 2012

The ballet of undead satanic nuns from Robert le diable, painting by Edgar Degas (1876).
From the V&A museum.
A talented cast and creative team cannot revive a lifeless treatment of a misguided 'virtue vs pleasure' myth.

Once hugely popular and influential, Meyerbeer's operas are now extreme rarities, even less popular than those of Gluck. But whereas Gluck deserves, and could surely sustain, a proper revival, I think posterity has judged Meyerbeer fairly.

I wouldn't dispute his importance, as his 'grand operas' established conventions for everyone else in the nineteenth century: tight plotting, a contrast between grand public scenes and intimate family relationships, and some form of redemption or heroic sacrifice.

But there is a great gulf between his ambitions and his achievement. The obvious comparison, in terms of themes, is with Wagner, but this is ridiculous. Even without examining the purpose to which Wagner's orchestral soundworld is put, its effect on us is radically different from Meyerbeer's, and in every sense greater.

A more useful comparison is with Verdi, who wrote at least two explicitly Meyerbeerian masterpieces (Don Carlos and Aida) or with Mussorgsky, whose two operas seem to me the pinnacle of what Meyerbeer is usually considered to be attempting, which is something political.

Mussorgsky first, because easiest. His rejection of conventional melody through his use of the rhythms of ordinary speech is extremely powerful for conveying the political world. It is also an innovation that places him in a different universe to Meyerbeer, for whom tunefulness is an axiom.

Verdi is the harder comparison. He seems extremely similar to Meyerbeer, in both approach and strengths (much moreso than Wagner).

Unhelpfully, I would describe the difference with the word gusto, as used in Hazlitt's crucial essay. Verdi's music gives his characters life in a way that Meyerbeer's cannot, beautiful though it sometimes is. Or rather, Meyerbeer only occasionally achieves this, and not so far as I heard in this particular opera.

His music is notoriously challenging for singers, and perhaps with a suitable cast it might come to life. But that is a serious criticism of it, as Verdi too blooms fully with great singers, but as with other great opera composers, his music works perfectly well without them.

I've now strayed into reviewing this production, and implied that the cast weren't great. They were only very good, which of course is not 'only' at all. Outside of New York, we're unlikely to get a better cast, so I'm not going to dwell on it.

In any case, I was more interested in the direction of Laurent Pelly, a director of comic opera whom I greatly admire.

He develops all of the presumably unintentional aspects of this version of the Faust myth. Comedy seems the correct tone for a story about a hero's indecision between heaven and hell, especially when this choice is mediated by his parents, the first dead and so speaking through Robert's saintly 'sister' Alice, the second alive and in vigorous malevolent health as Bertram, his diabolic new friend.

Equating hell with pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, effectively hobbles even the greatest artists, so that even Wagner cannot convince us that we should want heavenly non-pleasures, no matter how hard he tries, and this is very hard, in his Tannhauser.

Meyerbeer and his creative team don't even try to convince us. His dreary heaven wins only because the game is rigged: Robert doesn't choose, he merely vacillates until hell's (and Bertram's) time is up.

With considerable hindsight, it is clear that the supposed tension between virtue and pleasure explored so obsessively by the early nineteenth century romantics was a false dichotomy. In those works where the Faust legend retains its appeal, it is because the artist didn't centre their work on that dichotomy.

In rendering this opera as fundamentally comic, the production makes it entertaining once again, but I left suspecting Meyerbeer would be almost as unquiet in his grave as his famous satanic nuns.

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