From stage to canvas: the journey of the dancing nuns in art and music
A look at Degas' take on one of Meyerbeer's most memorable operatic scenes.
Although now a rarity (Covent Garden hasn’t seen a performance of the piece since 1890), Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable caused a sensation after its Paris premiere in 1831. Its dramatic plot and colourful music were much admired, and Meyerbeer became one of the leading figures in the European opera scene. Many of the cultural elite were in the audience for the world premiere of Robert le diable, including Frédéric Chopin, who wrote: “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”. The composer must have breathed a sigh of relief – he had toiled for three years on the work, paying his own expenses for his stay in Paris and eventually (according to Hector Berlioz) paying the Paris Opéra approximately 60,000 francs towards the costs of staging Robert.
One of the most memorable scenes of Robert le diable (and a late addition in the creative process at the behest of managing director Henri Duponchel) proved especially memorable and quickly achieved notoriety. The scene, a ballet, features a group of dead nuns who come back to life in a graveyard and try to entice Robert to his ruin and damnation with a seductive dance. The scene proved hugely influential, regarded by some as the first of the ballet blancs; a genre whose early examples also included La Sylphide and Giselle.
And, over 150 years after the world premiere of Robert le diable, it is the notorious ballet of the nuns that has cemented itself in the popular perception of the work, assisted no end by its inclusion in a memorable painting (existing in two versions) by Edgar Degas depicting this very scene on stage at the Paris Opéra. In the late 1860s Degas turned his attention from historical paintings and portraits to scenes of contemporary life. One of his particular interests was ballet dancers, and until the end of his life he drew and painted many scenes of dancers in performance, rehearsal or resting. It is as a depicter of dancers that Degas is now best known. He also did a series of portraits of musicians and opera audience members. Degas focused chiefly on dancers rather than singers – his painting The Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer’s Opera Robert le diable is a relatively rare example among his paintings of a depiction of an opera on stage, and even then it is of a ballet within an opera.
The two versions of The Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer’s Opera ‘Robert le diable’ held by the V&A and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York show the ballet on stage from the perspective of the orchestra stalls. We see clearly some of the members of the audience, and also some of the orchestral players, depicted in relatively intricate detail. This dark foreground is juxtaposed with an impressionistic view of the stage and the dancing nuns with their strange movements and gleaming white habits; an otherworldly scene, in contrast to the realistic depiction of the figures closest to the front of the painting. The view of the dancers may seem impressionistic and stylized, but Degas was in fact a highly disciplined artist, who calculated the effect of every brushstroke in his paintings. His notebooks contain a number of sketches for this painting, along with notes, and four brush drawings of the nuns. Degas famously disliked the term ‘Impressionism’, noting that ‘in art, nothing should look like chance, not even movement’.
When the curtain rises on Robert le diable on 6 December at the Royal Opera House in Laurent Pelly’s new production, London audiences will once more have a chance to see a work, and, in the course of the evening, a scene that hasn’t been staged in London since Degas’ time. Who knows: perhaps this production will inspire an iconic artist of the future?
Robert le diable opens on 6 December.