Robert le Diable – opera

Robert le Diable (translation: “Robert the Devil”) is an 1831 opera in five acts composed by Giacomo Meyerbeer from a libretto written by Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne. Robert le Diable is regarded as one of the first grand operas at the Paris Opéra. It derives some of its development from the medieval legend of Robert the Devil, a tale which was written in 13th Century France.

The opera introduces Robert, Duke of Normandy, the son of a union between Bertha and Bertram, a disciple of Satan, perhaps even a demon himself. In Normandy, alongside several other knights, he attempts to win favour with the beautiful Princess Isabelle. A minstrel, Raimbaut, inadvertently singing a song that referred to Robert as a devil is imprisoned by the enraged Robert but is granted forgiveness when Robert realises his fiancée is his foster-sister, Alice. Under the influence of a disguised Bertram, whom Robert is unaware is his father, let alone a devil, the duke gambles, leaves the door open for the Prince of Granada to woo Isabella and sees Raimbaut given a sack of gold to pursue love interests other than Alice.

By the time Bertram reveals to Robert that he is his father, he has communed with the devil himself, an event overheard by Alice who learns from the depraved chanting that if Bertram cannot convince his son to sell his soul to Satan by midnight, he will lose control over Robert forever. Bertram discovers he is being spied upon and threatens Alice, who leaves. He turns his attentions to his son who he informs could win back Isabelle by taking possession of a magic branch which grants invisibility, hanging near the tomb of Saint Rosalia in a nearby cloister. He agrees, despite knowing this is sacrilege and is punished by zombie nuns, the remains of sisters who lived with impure thoughts, who rise from their graves to taunt him.

Avoiding their suggestive drinking and dancing, he escapes with the branch and seeks to interrupt the imminent marriage of Isabelle and the Prince. With the clock approaching midnight, Bertram fails in his attempts and is cast down to Hell, leaving his son to step in and marry the Princess.

The opera was an immediate success on its premier in 1831 and drew plaudits from the likes of Franz Liszt, Alexandre Dumas (who featured the opera in his classic tale, The Count of Monte Cristo) and Edgar Degas. Brass (some provided by the now rarely used ophicleide, a forerunner to the bass tuba), fabricated thunder effects and baritone voices create unease throughout the opera, the Gothic drama of which comes to a head in the graveyard sequence where the hero is attacked by ghostly nuns rising from their tombs, Robert having to fend them off with supernatural powers. In many productions, this sequence is carefully choreographed to make the nuns particularly horrific and moving in unnatural ways.

Whilst the opera was so successful that Meyerbeer became a celebrity and was feted by the French court, it is said that his rival, the Italian Rossini, was so affected by Robert le Diable that he retired from composition. The opera has been compared to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, and is in fact mentioned by name in the musical. Considered shocking at the time of creation and still performed around the world today, the opera last appeared at London’s Covent Garden Opera House in 2012.

Daz Lawrence, moviesandmania





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