Behind the scenes in the Robert le diable Sitzprobe
A glimpse into preparations for the return of Meyerbeer's forgotten gem.
Last week, before the curtain was raised for The Royal Ballet’s evening show, for the first time in 122 years the Royal Opera House was filled with the grand sounds of Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable.
The auditorium was not set up for a performance: the stage was hidden by an imposing iron safety curtain and the Royal Opera Chorus occupied the velvet seats of the stalls. Eight soloists sat comfortably in a line across a narrow section of stage, as relaxed as if they were at home with a cup of tea, and the orchestra in the pit below played in jeans and t-shirts rather than the customary black tie.
The Royal Opera Chorus, the Principal Artists and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House had gathered for the Robert le diable Sitzprobe. The Sitzprobe, translated literally as ‘to sit and try out’, is a non-staged music rehearsal that gives the conductor a chance to tweak the finer musical details. Concert Master Peter Manning describes it as ‘when the chorus meets the complex tissue of sound that is the orchestra. It’s when we join forces all together to create the show.’
Bryan Hymel, who is singing the lead role of Robert, explained that it’s one of the favourite rehearsals for a lot of singers. ‘It’s a crucial step for us because it’s a chance to break from the complications of being on stage, and to co-ordinate with the orchestra one section at a time.You get to sit there and concentrate on the music, which is what we spend months preparing for. ‘
With Laurent Pelly’s new production of the French masterpiece opening on 6 December, rehearsals have been underway for some time now. The Sitzprobe we saw was the first of three and the music, already rehearsed separately by singers and orchestra to an impeccably high standard, sounded seamless. The power of the chorus was magnified in the otherwise empty auditorium and the soloists casually reeled off show-stealing arias, eliciting a professionally understated ripple of applause from the music staff. It also came as a surprise when the conductor’s voice suddenly interrupted mid-melody to shout out bar numbers and instructions about nuances of tone and expression.
‘Robert le diable demands a lot of resources and energy’, says Bryan. ‘You have to pace yourself through the evening so that you can still sing by the time you get to the end. It doesn’t really get any easier towards the end, it just gets progressively more involved.’
Bryan recently sang the role of Enée (Aeneas) in Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens, which is currently being screened in cinemas.
‘It’s been a very full year of big long French operas’, he explained. ‘Robert le diable is
a real challenge for me as my part is a good bit higher than in Les Troyens. The singing
is very virtuosic – bel canto-type singing – but also with very dramatic acting.’
Though a huge success when it had its premiere in Paris in 1831, Robert le diable hasn’t been staged at Covent Garden since 1890. Bryan says, “It’s not performed often because it’s very hard to find four singers who can all sing the Principal roles and are available all at the same time.”
Watch director Laurent Pelly discuss why he was drawn to this forgotten opera:
Robert le diable opens on 6 December and runs until 21 December. Tickets are still available.
The production is staged with generous philanthropic production support from Alfiya and Timur Kuanyshev and Michael Hartnall.