The big story on the London opera scene this week has been the late departure of the lead soprano from the Royal Opera’s new Robert le diable, when it should have been the revival of Meyerbeer’s grand work after a 120 year absence.  Putting aside the gossip and speculation as to what happened in the rehearsal room, as well as the earlier casting issues that have bedevilled the production, let’s focus on the real event.

Giacomo Meyerbeer was the most celebrated opera composer of his day, enjoying enormous success with this and a handful of other works, but his reputation diminished rapidly after his death, not least once his protégé Richard Wagner got his fangs into him.  In the twentieth century he was almost unperformed; one could have been a regular operagoer for 40 years in this city and hardly had an opportunity to see his work, making this major revival a must-see for anyone wanting to go beyond the usual limited repertoire.

A four and half hour opera, famed for its grandiloquence and over-blown gesture, is a forbidding prospect, even for the most hardened, so the appointment of Laurent Pelly as director, known for his whimsical, broad-comedy approach, might have been an attempt to soften the blow.  He lightens and simplifies but in the process strips the opera of its epicness.  Long stretches of just two or three principals on stage calls out for some extraneousness and the sparseness causes the evening to drag.

When Pelly rises to the chorus scenes, it’s certainly colourful with a strange mix of styles.  In an almost surrealistic opening, a mass of men in armour, (along with a bear) inhabit a café over-looked by mutli-coloured model horses.  The theme is carried through to the ladies-in-waiting of Isabelle’s court, brightly-daubed from head to foot, but then dropped, as a stylistic hotch-potch takes over.  Act 3 has the most stirring visuals, with a Gustave Doré-inspired background of engraved mountains with natty projections that effectively evoke a hellish realm. 

Pelly increasingly acknowledges that this is ultimately a creaky work peopled by blood and thunder villains, flawed heroes and pure women.  In the final act, the most literal of staging devices seems to be mocking the simplicity of Meyerbeer’s dichotomy, as Robert is torn between good and evil.  Hammer horror takes over in the infamous dancing zombie nuns scene (no joke, that’s how it’s written).  The supernatural was something of a trend in 1831, following the success of Der Freischutz a few years earlier.  These nuns could be a lot ruder (what would Ken Russell have done with them?) but it’s elegantly choreographed and certainly brings things to life, in every sense, halfway through a long evening. 

Meyerbeer’s score is rich and melodic, with ample opportunities for virtuosic singing.  Patrizia Ciofi, who took over at just a few day’s notice, is astonishingly good and Bryan Hymel, who impressed in the year’s other French blockbuster Les Troyens is similarly heroic here as Robert.  John Relyea is a black-voiced baddie and Marina Poplavskaya, whether you like her or not, delivers.  Smaller roles are ably filled, from Jean-François Borras’s resonant Raimbaut to a batch of knights and heralds sung by Jette Parker Young Artists.           

Daniel Oren conducts with finesse and makes this a worthwhile outing but one you may not want to repeat.

- Simon Thomas