2012 was an incredible year for ‘Robert le Diable', with productions in Erfurt, Monte Carlo, Sofia, Salerno, London and Geneva. The concert performance in Salerno was recorded by Brilliant Records, and comes as a special memento of this period of remarkable rediscovery for Meyerbeer's legendary opera (in both senses of that word). Congratulations go especially to Daniel Oren for his enterprise and faith in the score. In any case, the score is so very beautiful.
The outpouring of loathing and contempt on the part of many critics that greeted the Covent Garden revival was a bizarre spectacle, and quite incomprehensible. One wonders if we lives in the same world, and are hearing the same sounds? It is almost as if some of these people were fighting a moral cause, and is almost itself a sociological phenomenon! It is interesting that there is no other composer who is capable of eliciting such strength of feeling. There is no other major opera composer who musical worth is questioned all the time, or whose achievements are constantly and inappropriately forced into comparison with Wagner and Verdi. It is astonishing actually, and says something about the innate nature of the music, and its ability to challenge and to unsettle. Some accuse Meyerbeer of being hackneyed and trivial, but they are puzzled when the music is sufficiently unusual and original to unsettle expectation. Then he is blamed for not being conventional in, say, his melodic inspiration, or handling of form. If you want more conventional ideas, look to the Italian operas. In the French operas Meyerbeer was, like Berlioz, was using conventional media to create something new and unusual.
The score is contained on three CDs—which means that the opera is cut. The big Chorus of the Spell and the finale in act 4 are the main victims here. People listening to recordings of the opera must not imagine that can draw many conclusions about the composer's structural powers, since few pieces are given as written. The main query here is the omission of two numbers of the famous Ballet of the Nuns, a famous piece for which Meyerbeer provided astonishing music to convey an otherworldly atmosphere—attractive but strange, fluid but almost mechanical (like the necromantic spirits the nuns really are). The Nuns and their music must be seductively beautiful but also alien and menacing, of true darkly Romantic Nacht und Träume (night and dreams). When listened to as a recital, without say reference to the score, the recording nonetheless comes across as an effective musical unity. The conductor does, however, takes one or two pieces far too fast (the Bacchanale in act 3 and act 4 finale are rushed off their feet), and does not give the music time to breathe. Wonderful details of harmony and orchestration are lost. Otherwise the very big resources are directed well, and the vivid orchestral colours and lovely melodies are brought to the fore. The digital recording helps with this—even if it conversely allows audience noise from the live recording to intrude occasionally.
Brian Hymel sounds young and fresh in the hugely demanding title role, his tone even throughout the extreme tessitura, boldly tackling the very high notes, and conveying the impulsive but confused young hero with some charm. His sinister mentor Bertram is tackled by Alastair Miles who has the requisite darkness and depth of hue, but has developed a marked vibrato that is badly exposed on occasion. The two heroines are sung with steady dedication: Patrizia Ciofi has become something of a specialist in the role of Princess Isabelle, and sings it again with warmth and engagement. Her control of the coloratura and drama is sure, and she perfectly understands the heady mixture. The more lyrical role of Alice, undertaken by Carmen Giannattasio, is presented with charm in act 1, suitable trepidation and anguish in act 3, and with the requisite power and floating vocalism when needed in act 5. Martial Defontaine captures the diffident opportunism of the minstrel Raimbaut with Gallic finesse.
The chorus and orchestra of the Teatro Verdi in Salerno also perform with precision and dash. The opera contains a wealth of lovely choral writing: the corporate Gambling of the Knights in act 1, the invigorating Chorus of the Tournament in act 2, the charming Bridal Chorus in act 4, and the monumental Chorus of Monks in act 5. All of these are realized with real panache, the monks with wonderful portentous solemnity. The adagio of the ballet in act 3, the deeply affecting Aria of Grace in act 4, and the decisive climactic act 5 trio are among the most beautiful and riveting inspirations in all operatic literature, and are performed with real passion. Taken as a whole, this bargain set is a wonderful operatic experience, and a worthy tribute to its fascinating and misunderstood composer.