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?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Trifonov: Try Phone Off.

One for the appropriate names department at the QEH last night. Daniil Trifonov, the 21-year-old Russian whizz-kid who has scooped top prize at both the Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein competitions and third in the Chopin, came to London for his South Bank recital debut, which duly blew our socks off. But music is as much about silence as about sound. In that great silence at the ultimate climax of the Liszt B minor Sonata, there it was, wouldn't you know it...the mobile going off.

And not off. It went on and on. The admirable TryPhoneOff wasn't remotely fazed, carrying on with aplomb as if nothing had happened. But for the rest of us, who had been following the narrative thread on the edge of our seats - for this Liszt was a fantastical Bulgakovesque page-turner - the timing could scarcely have been worse. It does scupper the experience to a large degree and there is no excuse except carelessness and, I'm afraid, plain old human stupidity. It's time for concert halls to introduce signal blockers at best, or bouncers in place of ushers at worst. Possibly both. Otherwise it can only be a matter of time before an audience group gets together to form a vigilante clique, perhaps with whips.

OK, so much for the phone. What of the Fon? Friends, please welcome a very major talent. He may be just 21, but Trifonov somehow makes me think of a taller, thinner, younger, embryonic kind of Sokolov-to-be. He's an old-school Russian, with that sense of colour and drama - as if the Liszt B minor Sonata and the Chopin Preludes are great narratives like The Master and Margarita or Anna Karenina itself: mighty struggles between good and evil, with, in the case of the Chopin, an apocalyptic conclusion balanced earlier by perfect songs-without-words and a deep sensitivity to the evanescence of absolute beauty. There's that Chaliapin-like phrasing, the breath strongest at the start of the phrase; there's an identification with the Russian sense of vastness, and a pride in it. He takes risks - as much with the softness he can evoke as with the juggernauts of octaves he can unleash when required. The Scriabin Sonata No.2 came out in three-dimensional textures, lit by a stained-glass window of synaesthetic luminous legato. There's an energy that crackles around him from the minute he steps on stage - as if he functions at a higher vibration level than most people.

The programme was cleverly chosen to show off his strength in fantastical, mercurial imagination; and in the encores he romped home to Russian territory with a Medtner Fairy Tale, a mind-busting transcription of the Infernal Dance from the Firebird by Stravinsky - something I've never heard on the piano before and don't anticipate hearing again anytime soon, given its challenges - and a little calm-down-dears extra piece to close that [UPDATE] has turned out to be a little something of his own.

Let's hope that Trifonov can sustain, guard and further develop his glorious pianism and sterling musicianship without the undoubted stardom he faces wreaking materialistic havoc. I'm an optimist in this case, and I think he can make it.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012


New year, new resolution: KICKSTART YOUR WRITING is back! I've designed this special workshop as a total-immersion day for anyone who has ever said "I've always wanted to write, BUT...": here's your chance to get rid of your "but". So to speak.

In a small group with a supportive and non-critical atmosphere, we explore ways to help you get started. You don't need to bring anything except paper and a pen and you can share your work during the session or not, as you like. Places are strictly limited, so book soon! For more info and booking, please email

The first workshop of 2013 will be on SUNDAY 13 JANUARY in SW London, 10.30am to 4.30pm-ish.

Please share this post if you like the look of it.

Monday, December 03, 2012

A Diable of a tenor: meet Bryan Hymel

You have to hear Bryan Hymel, the American French-style "heroic tenor" who's about to sing the title role of Robert le Diable at the Royal Opera House. He has already become the darling of Covent Garden, stepping in to replace an indisposed Jonas Kaufmann for Les Troyens earlier this year and earning out-and-out raves. I've had a good chat with him about Robert - especially about the particular quality of voice that is required for it, and that he has, and that is a rare marvel today: in a way, the white tiger of the tenor jungle. Just listen to this, from Rossini's Guillaume Tell.

JD: So, Bryan, how’s it going? 
BH: Really well! Each act has its own feeling and mood - it’s good to get into each one. I’ve done the opera before, but only in concert. With this production it’s exciting to see the possibilities, and the stylised way that Laurent [Pelly] envisions the piece is great. It’s a lot of fun.

JD: What are the special challenges that you face in this role? 

BH: First, it’s really high. The range and the majority of the notes lie in a very high part of the voice. This range and the length of the opera are the biggest challenges: my approach is to take it in little chunks, digest them and make sure I’m singing as efficiently as possible. Fortunately I had the chance to do it in concert, just concentrating on the singing and the music, so I was ahead of the game, knowing what to expect of that. What’s going to make it exciting for the audience is also what’s exciting and challenging for us, because all the four main characters’ roles are written that way. They use the whole range, well over two octaves - and the soprano has almost two and a half octaves. You don’t hear that very often, even in things like Lucia. It's extremely virtuosic singing, but the interaction between the characters, especially Robert and Isabelle, is also very dramatic. He thinks she’s left him for another knight and he’s the scorned lover; and in Act 4 he has to fight away the crazy nuns in the ballet. I think the spectacle and the drama will be very exciting in the house. 

JD: Do you think the melodramatic quality and the virtuosity is what made it such an incredible success in its time? 
BH: I do, and I think you have to have the singers and actors that can pull it off. And there are some wonderful moments – that’s an integral factor for any piece to stand the test of time. Maybe it’s 30 seconds or one aria that the audience is waiting for - and there's at least one such bit in every act. There are some really beautiful stand-alone pieces. I hope it will be a reawakening of this repertoire. But it’s hard, especially when times are tough and there’s not a lot of money; a lot of forces are involved in this opera, a big orchestra, the chorus and the ballet. 

JD: How would you account for its neglect?
BH: I think it’s really hard to cast! It’s difficult to get four singers together at the same time who can sing these parts. They contacted me about this over three years ago - it was planned that far in advance. At the time everyone was the same [as the concert performance] except Diana Damrau who’s just had a baby – she’s the only one not here from the original team. It’s not standard repertoire and none of us knew the roles before that. The last time it was done on stage was in Paris in the late 1990s. You need the time to learn the role and get it into your body because it’s not just about singing the notes. You have to be able to do it in an artistic way while still giving the illusion it’s easy. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to sing, by a good bit! 

[UPDATE, 3 December 12 noon: the ROH has just announced that the role of Isabelle will not now be sung by Jennifer Rowley, but instead by Patricia Ciofi and Sofia Fomina.]

JD: Wagner was hugely influenced by Meyerbeer...
BH: I’ve never sung any Wagner – it's a different voice type – but I can certainly see how Meyerbeer’s writing would have influenced Wagner's, especially in the ballet. The music uses very progressive tonalities for the time and it’s great writing. It’s what probably gave Wagner the idea to make the orchestra an equal part of the opera, as opposed to just accompanying the singers - I think Meyerbeer’s already started to do that here. The ballet is almost the most famous thing in the opera, not just because it’s great, but also because it’s shocking to the audience – and not just because it’s nuns behaving badly. I don't think the audience was used to hearing music that was so much part of telling the story. It’s doing much more than setting the mood. There are lots of little solos between instruments that I haven’t heard in operas written before that time. I can see how Meyerbeer influenced Wagner in that way.

JD: Some people suggest that Meyerbeer is too "kitsch" to be convincing today...
BH: If you want to be that way about it, you can – because there are some silly moments. But if you're a Wagner person I think it’s hard to look down your nose too much at anyone else, because the way the drama moves - slow and laboured - that’s part of the style you see in Wagner. And in general, you have to suspend disbelief in opera to enjoy it. I mean, look at L'Elisir! If you buy into Wagner being six hour long, then when you walk into the theatre you approach it from a different place - and I think if an audience doesn’t do that, then they’re not going to enjoy it. 

Laurent Pelly has shrewedly set the audience up for this. Act 1 is set in a tavern, everyone’s drinking and I think that’s an easy way to open the piece. In Act 2 we have the jousting and the tournament: the horses are red, yellow, green and blue, and the chorus singers supporting each horse are painted the same colour, even their arms and faces. I think he has a way of easing the audience into the opera and saying 'This is not what you might expect, but let us lead you there'... so by the end, people will really appreciate it. We’ve made some cuts that I think help to move things along. The French, for grand opera, wanted a long evening in the theatre – they went along for that! It might be a little far for modern audiences to go there right away, but I think we’re going to give it a good shot.

JD: Yout high tenor role is something particularly characteristic of French opera? 
BH: Yes. I would say that Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Auber, etc, were writing for a specific kind of tenor voice – it’s a very different style from the Italian and it involves another approach to the high notes. Italians often throw in a high note out of the blue and I think it was written in that way so that if a tenor had that note he could put it in, and if he didn’t - and probably most of them didn’t! - you could just go on without it and unless people knew the music well, it wouldn’t strike them as funny. Here, though, there’s no way not to do the high notes and that’s what makes it really tricky. Being a tenor who sings this repertoire, I know that if I’m not feeling 95 per cent, the note’s just not going to come out! Rossini wrote Guillaume Tell in a similar fashion. The term at the time was 'heroic tenor', because though it was high it’s still very visceral. 

Meyerbeer and these guys were writing for a specific kind of singer; those tenors were just starting to sing the high notes in their full chest voice right before this was written. Some of them still would go into the voix mixte. That wouldn’t work today: the theatres are too big and the orchestras are too loud for those sounds to be heard. 

When they first sent [the score] to me I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. Three years down the line you think hopefully your vocal progress will have continued to grow, but even though I could sing it at the time, I wasn’t comfortable enough about saying 'OK let’s do the title role in this opera at Covent Garden'. It’s been three years that this has been looming over my head! Now that I’m here, thank goodness I feel in the best shape I can be in. Coming from Les Troyens I feel I have the confidence and a kind of support and relationship with the audience here in London. I think we’re going to present something they’ll look forward to. I feel strongly about the piece, I’m excited aboutit and through the rehearsals I've felt I’m in a good place. 

JD: Well, if you guys can't pull this off, then nobody can.
BH: I think that’s probably true! 

[Production photos: Bill Cooper/ROH] 

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Whatever happened to ROBERT LE DIABLE? #1

Dear JDCMB fans, you know the scene in Korngold's Die tote Stadt when Marietta rehearses her balletic role and someone whistles a Resurrection Motif and she mimes rising from the tomb and Paul cuts in and says "You, a resurrected woman? Never!" Perhaps he didn't know what was actually going on. It's Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable and she is practising its most famous episode: a ballet in which ghostly nuns rise from the grave - and have an orgy. 

The Royal Opera House is staging Meyerbeer's vast and influential opera for the first time in 122 years on Thursday next. I've been delving into its background and am happy to bring you our own little JDCMB series on it. 

First, here is my article for today's Independent: The man who made Wagner mad. Below, please find the director's cut, which involves more detail and more quotes from the fantastic Professor John Deathridge. And before that, a video from the ROH in which the director Laurent Pelly discusses the opera.

Was Giacomo Meyerbeer the man who turned Richard Wagner anti-Semitic? Thereby hangs a tale almost as convoluted as Meyerbeer’s opera Robert le Diable, which is about to be staged at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for the first time since 1890. Once, this opera was ubiquitous. Chopin and Liszt produced works based on its melodies; it was painted by Degas, quoted by Korngold, lampooned by Gilbert and Sullivan; the list of cultural references could go on. Yet Meyerbeer’s reputation has been so tangled up with Wagner’s slurs against him that perhaps it has simply never recovered.

Robert le Diable secured Meyerbeer’s dominance in the operatic world of Paris. It was 1831 and the German-Jewish composer was 40 years old and in his prime. He was born Jacob Meyer Beer into a wealthy banking family in Berlin in 1791; in childhood he was a brilliant pianist, making his concert debut aged 11. He cut his compositional teeth on light opera, singspiel; next, he spent nine years studying and composing in Italy. Having achieved considerable repute, in 1825 he set out to conquer Paris and – as Berlioz put it – he had not only “the luck to be talented, but also the talent to be lucky”. And he thought big. The French taste for grand opera fêted the lengthy, the melodramatic, the showy, the hummable, the fantastical. Meyerbeer gave them everything they wanted.

Around five hours long, traversing a story that involves jousting knights and pacts with the devil, Robert le Diable provided spectacle, high notes, show-stopping arias and a ballet of ghostly nuns indulging in an orgy. “If ever magnificence was seen in the theatre, I doubt that it reached the level of splendour shown in Robert...It is a masterpiece...Meyerbeer has made himself immortal,” wrote Chopin after attending the world premiere.

In 1839, Meyerbeer got to know a young German composer who approached him to solicit his help: one Richard Wagner. And at first Wagner scraped and crawled to Meyerbeer in terms that would not have disgraced Dickens’s Uriah Heep: 

“But my head and my heart are no longer mine to give away - they are your property, my master; - the most that is left to me is my two hands - do you wish to make use of them? - I realise that I must become your slave, body and soul, in order to find food and strength for my work, which will one day tell me of my gratitude...”

Professor John Deathridge of Kings College, London, author of Wagner Beyond Good and Evil (California Press, 2008), confirms that Wagner not only sought Meyerbeer’s support, but modelled himself – and some of his works – upon the older composer and his operas. While working at the opera house in Riga, Wagner even conducted Robert le Diable and arranged one of its arias for string ensemble. And he received the assistance he sought: Meyerbeer, a generous spirit with his feet firmly on the ground, intervened to prompt stagings of Wagner’s early operas Rienzi and Der fliegender Höllander (The Flying Dutchman). 

“Wagner was hugely influenced by Meyerbeer,” says Deathridge. “Act II of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg would never have existed without the model of Act III Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Meistersinger is a grand opera with all the historical scenes characteristic of that tradition – delivered as if Wagner is trying to outdo Meyerbeer.”

Wagner’s volte face against Meyerbeer looks almost predictable: perhaps an inevitable revolt against someone who has committed the cardinal sin of being too successful, too popular and too wealthy. Besides, Meyerbeer had intervened to have Wagner’s Rienzi staged in Berlin, he was an easy target for Wagner to blame when the opera was a failure. And the fiasco of Tannhäuser’s premiere in Paris –when furious Jockey Club members protested about the ballet being placed right at the beginning – left Wagner with a grudge against the French capital and all it stood for: commercial grand opera with formulaic structure, epitomised, of course, by Meyerbeer. 

His tracts against Meyerbeer are poisonous indeed. “As a Jew, [Meyerbeer] owned no mother-tongue, no speech inextricably entwined among the sinews of his inmost being...” is a typical example. By the time he penned his notorious anti-Semitic tract Das Judenthum in der Musik (first published anonymously in 1850), his antipathy towards Meyerbeer was embedded in its accusations that Jews were only interested in art for the sake of commerce. Later, says Deathridge, Wagner censored his own writings to wipe out any sign that he had ever admired Meyerbeer or owed anything to him artistically.

“Meyerbeer became the bête noir to Wagner – but also to other German composers, including Schumann – as a symbol of what’s wrong with culture, of the capitalist way and the commodification of art,” Deathridge explains. “There was general feeling among them that French music was destroying true art because of its commercialisation, and that Meyerbeer was the principal villain.”

And on that point, Deathridge adds, he thinks Wagner was right. “The basic problem is that some of Meyerbeer’s music is impossibly kitsch. The orgy of nuns in Robert le Diable is virtually porno stuff, accompanied by four bassoons! Wagner was a first-rate critic, but his mistake was to blame what he saw as Meyerbeer’s racial characteristics, not the fact that he just wasn’t a very good composer.” [Degas's painting, right, shows the ballet scene complete with those four bassoons.]

Today Meyerbeer has been out of the picture for a long time. First, his music was overshadowed by both Wagner and Verdi; later it was banned by the Nazis. And the tenor Bryan Hymel, who sings the title role in Robert le Diable at Covent Garden, thinks that the extreme vocal demands of this opera have probably contributed to its neglect: “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to sing,” he declares. 

Has Wagner’s lingering influence banished a gem from our theatres? Or will Robert le Diable prove to be a white elephant? Now, at last, London audiences have a chance to make up their own minds.

Robert le Diable opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 6 December. Box office: 020 7304 4000