Friday, December 07, 2012

Everything you wanted to know about French 19th-century grand opera but were afraid to ask

Robert le Diable opened last night and I think we can expect a few divisions on the topic.

The singing is phenomenal - and the demands of the leading roles every bit as difficult as Bryan Hymel said. He deserves a raft of gold medals. So does soprano Patrizia Ciofi - stepping in at the last minute to replace Jennifer Rowley - as well as Marina Poplavskaya, John Relyea and a newcomer,  Jean-Francois Borras, making an impressive house debut as Raimbaut: a high French tenor of another kind, with effortless projection, bel canto-ish legato and a bright, appealing stage presence.

The production, by Laurent Pelly, is very, very Pelly: plenty of irony, humour (intentional and maybe not) and wacky designs - sets by Chantal Thomas, costumes by Pelly himself: a stylised storybook complete with Spamalot knights, kooky princess, bright painted horses, sketched mountain scenery and a man-in-a-bear-suit. And those vengeful dead nuns. Doing what such beings do when they're allowed out of their tombs. A few spectacular coups-de-theatre help matters along.

It's a sterling effort by all concerned. But the big question is this: is the opera worth it? Just think of all the hard work and expertise that went into it. Think of how much it must have cost. And wonder what planet Covent Garden was on. It's Springtime for Meyerbeer...some of us hadn't laughed so much since we saw The Producers.

Try to be serious. This opera is important. Really, seriously important. It was performed around 750 times across the middle of the 19th century and to see it is to begin to understand all those matters about that time that you read about, and sort of know about, but don't usually have the chance to experience viscerally.

You see where many subsequent, much better works originated. Giselle, for instance - as Alice clings to the cross, or as the not-very-willi-like dancers gear up for action. And also Carmen - no kidding. Alice is a foreshadow of Micaela: molested by soldiers on her first appearance, trying to find Robert to bring him news that his mother has died; later, searching alone and fearful for her lover in the mountains, while we know he has been led astray by the demon Bertram. Bizet's audience, familiar with Robert le Diable, was being set up to identify Carmen herself with the devil.

"A masterpiece," said Chopin, who was 21 at the time of the premiere. Really? Remember, it was 1831 and nobody had ever heard anything like this before. It was four years since Beethoven died, three years since Schubert. The great romantics - Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, Verdi as well as Chopin - were aged between 17 and 22. An off-stage orchestra and chorus suggesting hell! A real workout for the brass section! Imaginative instrumentation, as brightly coloured as Pelly's costumes, including mega-solos for flute, for lead cello and so on. Absolutely dizzying vocal display. Foot-tapping rhythms (someone in the row behind me did so every time an oom-chah passage started up, which said much). Oh yes, and more people believed in Destiny, the hell thing, the devil thing and the ghost thing than do so today, so the suspension of disbelief may not have been so difficult and it might all have been scary instead of hilarious.

As for the libretto, I know you have to suspend disbelief and so forth, but - well, it makes most other clunky opera stories look like flippin' Dickens. How do you sympathise with a hero who lets everyone down and can't see that his beloved companion is evil incarnate even though everyone else can? Was he the ill-fated romantic hero, like Byron's Manfred, eternally cursed and cast out? If so, how come he gets to live happily ever after? And there's a wonderful moment when he faces Isabelle to try to make up, and she wants him to take part in the tournament, but he's lost his weapons. "Here's one I made earlier," she says (sort of), producing a sword for him from nowhere. Pelly's vision of hell, meanwhile, involved fiery screen projections in which a little demon figure tipped cartoon stickmen into a tumbly abyssy pit with a pitchfork. This can do terrible things to a girl's mascara.

Over the years I've read reams about what Faure and co were fighting against - being expected to become composers of super-popular grand opera to make their fortune, when it was the last thing they wanted to write. It's only now that I realise exactly what they had to contend with. Imagine being Faure, with all his sensitivity and intuition and passion for Schumann and early church music and intimate songs and chamber music - but the French loved this? Oh, my ears and whiskers.

This opera sums up much that was characteristic of its day, and perhaps a good deal that was wrong with the mindset. Because of this, I'm pleased they've done it: it fills in our musical education in a very particular way and provides some real perspective on, er, the good stuff.

What works of the 20th-century and the early 21st, I wonder, will be exhumed from deserved burial in 122 years' time and allowed their auto-erotic hour of dancing to show bemused people what was characteristic of, and wrong with, our life and attitudes?