LONDON - Degas painted it. Chopin wrote variations on it. Balzac and Dumas mentioned it in their fiction. The Paris Opera performed it 100 times in just three years.
For more than a half-century after its premiere in 1831, Giacomo Meyerbeer's "Robert le Diable" was everywhere. Then, as its composer's reputation plummeted, it all but disappeared.
Now the Royal Opera has brought it back, for the first time in 120 years, in a new production by director Laurent Pelly that opened Dec. 6 and was seen at the third of six performance Wednesday night.
It's a commendable undertaking, especially at a time when many opera companies are opting for safe repertory choices. But "Robert" makes for a long evening — five acts spread over more than four hours — and Meyerbeer's music is only fitfully inspired, to put it kindly. Also, Covent Garden has failed to make the strongest possible case for the work: The singing, with one exception, is merely adequate, and the staging is at times too cute for its own good.
Based loosely on a medieval legend about the son of the devil by a mortal woman, "Robert" single-handedly established the popularity of "grand opera," melodrama filled with lavish spectacle, expensive scenic effects, big choruses, ballets and vocal parts requiring great virtuosity.
Above all, what caused a sensation at "Robert's" premiere was the provocative "Ballet of Nuns," in which the ghosts of fallen nuns rise from their crypt to seduce the hero at the devil's bidding. As choreographed here by Lionel Hoche, it's moderately creepy and makes an honourable stab at replicating what audiences might have experienced then.
For most of the evening, however, Pelly seems afraid to take the opera seriously. That's probably a mistake: If "Robert" is to succeed after all this time, it isn't going to be through camp.
The brightly colored cutout sets by Chantal Thomas evoke titters with designs straight out of The Wizard of Oz: horses of different colours, knights resembling the Tin Man, even a castle with turrets like the Wicked Witch's.
The best music in the opera is a trio in which Robert's half-sister, Alice, plays tug-of-war for his soul with his father, Bertram. It's potentially thrilling, but Pelly undercuts it by having Alice drift in from our left on a cloud formation, while Bertram is menaced by a cartoonish monster who slides in from the right. Pelly even ends the evening with a gag — the devil reappears, suitcase and stovepipe hat in hand, walking across the stage as if en route to his next assignment.
Covent Garden had casting difficulties from the outset, and no wonder since few singers alive today are familiar with the score. The production was conceived for tenor Juan Diego Florez, but he decided against doing it, and the title role fell to Bryan Hymel. He has a big voice and his high notes — there are many — can be thrilling. But on Wednesday many of them sounded effortful. He and Pelly also haven't found a way to make the vacillating Robert someone we care about, admittedly not an easy task.
Soprano Marina Poplavskaya sang the role of Alice, after first bowing out of the production a few weeks ago and then changing her mind. She is dramatically compelling as always, but her singing was wildly inconsistent — strong and soulful at times, frayed and off-pitch at others.
A second leading role for soprano, that of Robert's true love, Princess Isabelle of Sicily, originally was to have been sung by Diana Damrau, but she cancelled because of pregnancy and Jennifer Rowley was engaged. Then, just three days before the opening, Covent Garden announced she was withdrawing, and Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi flew in to take over.
Ciofi's voice is on the small side, but she's a terrific artist and technician. She invested her phrases with sweet tone and real feeling, and hit every note with accuracy and seeming ease. Isabelle gets the most famous aria in the opera, "Robert, toi que je t'aime," and Ciofi made the most of its plaintive, upward-reaching refrain.
As Bertram, bass John Relyea gave a performance that was workman-like when it needed to be charismatic and commanding. Daniel Oren conducted with a good sense of period style, though a faster pace might have helped at times to generate more excitement.
There are three more performances through Dec. 21 (Russian soprano Sofia Romina takes over for the last two). Despite its limitations, the production is worth seeing for anyone interested in the history of opera — and it may well be another 120 years before Covent Garden stages it again.