Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > Robert le Diable (Meyerbeer)
Robert le Diable
An Opera by Jakob Meyerbeer
The libretto of this opera was written by Eugène Scribe. Scribe was one of the most fertile playwrights and the most skillful librettist of modern times. But "Robert le Diable" (Robert the Devil) is not a supremely good example of his art. It embodies, indeed, a strange mixture of absurdities and contradictions, and can only be praised from a scenic point of view.
The scene is laid in Sicily, where Robert, Duke of Normandy, arrives to compete in a magnificent tournament for the hand of the Princess Isabella. Roberts wild escapades earn for him the sobriquet of "Le Diable"; and he crowns his folly by gambling away at a single sitting all his possessions, even to the horse and arms which were to serve him in the tournament. Roberts foster-sister, the gentle Alice, tries to check his wayward course, but Robert is constantly beset by the temptations of his demon-father Bertram. Isabella supplies him with a fresh horse, but by Betrams trickery he is beguiled away from Palermo, and fails to appear at the tournament. Bertram then persuades him that to win Isabella he must go to his mothers tomb in the convent ruins and pluck a magic branch of cypress which will defeat all rivals.
Robert does this amidst infernal orgies of the spirits of profligate nuns, and is enabled by supernatural means to enter Isabellas room with the view of carrying her off. However, he yield to her entreaties and breaks the talismanic branch, thus destroying his uncanny power. Bertram, whose term of evil influence on earth expires at midnight, again tries to tempt Robert. But Alice, knowing of the time-limit, brings Robert the last warning words of his dead mother, and gets him to delay his decision till midnight. Midnight strikes; Bertram vanishes with the thunder to the place appointed of old for Don Giovanni, Caspar, and other heroes of his class, and the scene changes to the Cathedral, where Robert and Isabella are now happily mated.
In "Robert le Diable," as in Meyerbeers other operas, there is a wealth of melody and harmony and invention which would surprise many if they would only look over its pages carefully. Mendel says of this opera particularly: "To the flowing melody of the Italians and the solid harmony of the Germans, Meyerbeer united the pathetic declamation and the varied piquant rhythm of the French." Mendelssohn called it a cold, calculated work of the imagination, without heart or effect; and so thought many of the Germans. But the music is at several points (for instance, at the rising of the ghostly nuns) really dramatic, and nowhere else is Meyerbeers splendid use of the orchestra better illustrated.
"Robert le Diable" was written when Meyerbeer was forty, and it was produced for the first time in Paris in November 1831. The performance was marred by a series of nasty accidents which might have had grave consequences. In the third Act a screen fell with a crash, just missing the head of the impersonator of Alice; and after the chorus of demons, the "curtain of clouds" had reached a great height when the wires snapped and it descended perilously near Mdlle. Taglioni (representing the Abbess), who was lying on her tomb in the character of a statue not yet animated. In the fifth Act, Nourrit, the representative of Robert, fell into the "vampire trap" which had conveyed Bertram below the stage, and everybody thought he was killed. However, these things were all sunk in the interest of the opera itself, the success of which proved both brilliant and lasting. It made the fortune of the Paris Opera. In 1858 it had brought in upwards of four million francs. It was given 333 times in twenty years. In 1883 it was given in Vienna for the 401st time in fifty years.