Opera Essentials: Robert le diable
A guide to Meyerbeer’s classic grand opera, as the curtain goes up on Laurent Pelly’s striking new production.
Robert le diable is one of the earliest examples of French grand opera. It is constructed on a massive scale, with dances and extended choruses contrasting with introspective arias and intense duets.
The opera tells the story of Robert the dissolute duke of Normandy who wishes to reform and marry Isabelle, Princess of Sicily. However, Robert falls under the influence of the mysterious Bertram. When Robert’s half-sister Alice discovers that Bertram has supernatural powers, a struggle between good and evil begins.
Giacomo Meyerbeer, the opera’s composer, was born to a wealthy German Jewish family in 1791. He studied in Darmstadt and Vienna, and worked for six years in Italy. He arrived in Paris in 1826, and after the world premiere of Robert le diable in 1831 became one of the foremost opera composers in Europe. Although little-known in the 20th century, in his day Meyerbeer influenced composers including Verdi, Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner.
The librettist for the opera was Eugène Scribe, a playwright and one of the most prominent French librettists of the 19th century. Scribe based his story very loosely on a medieval legend, adapting it to cater for Parisian audiences’ enthusiasm for the supernatural and for romance. The relationship between Robert and Bertram may have been inspired by the relationship between Max and the demonic Caspar in Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821).
Robert le diable received its premiere at the Paris Opéra on 21 November 1831. It was a great success, and was performed 100 times at the Paris Opéra in three years. By 1835 Robert le diable had been seen in 77 houses in ten countries. However, since the start of the 20th century it had become a comparative rarity, and hasn’t been seen at the Royal Opera House since 1890. Laurent Pelly’s production provides audiences with the opportunity to see this neglected classic at Covent Garden for the first time in 122 years.
Laurent Pelly’s new production of Robert le diable runs from 6 December to 21 December.