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Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > Robert le Diable (Meyerbeer) - Synopsis

Robert le Diable -
(English title: Robert the Devil)
An Opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer

Opera in five acts, by Meyerbeer; words by Scribe and Delavigne, Produced, Grand Opéra, Paris, November 22, 1831. Drury Lane, London, February 20, 1832, in English, as "The Demon, or the Mystic Branch"; Covent Garden, February 21, 1832, in English, as "The Fiend Father, or Robert of Normandy"; King’s Theatre, June 11, 1832, in French; Her Majesty’s Theatre, May 4, 1847, in Italian. Park Theatre, New York, April 7, 1834, in English, with Mrs. Wood as Isabel and Wood as Robert, the opera being followed by a pas seul by Miss Wheatley, and a farce, "My Uncle John"; Astor Place Opera House, November 3, 1851, with Bettini (Robert), Marini (Bertram), Bosio (Isabella), Steffanone (Alice); Academy of Music, November 30, 1857, with Formes as Bertram.


ALICE, foster sister of Robert………………………………. Soprano
ISABELLA, Princess of Sicily……………………………… Soprano
THE ABBESS ………………………………………………
ROBERT, duke of Normandy…………………………………. Tenor
BERTRAM, The Unknown………………………………… Bass
RAIMBAUT, a minstrel……………………………………. Tenor

Time: 13th Century.
Place: Sicily.

The production of "Robert le Diable" in Paris was such a sensational success that it made the fortune of the Grand Opéra. Nourrit was Robert Levasseur, Bertram (the prototype of Mephistofeles); the women of the cast were Mlle. Dorus as Alice, Mme. Cinti-Damoreau as Isabella, and Taglioni, the famous danseuse, as the Abbess. Jenny Lind made her début in London as Alice, in the Italian production of the work. In New York Carl Formes was heard as Bertram at the Astor Place Theatre, November 30, 1857.

Whatever criticism may now be directed against "Robert le Diable," it was a remarkable creation for its day. Meyerbeer’s score not only saved the libretto, in which the grotesque is carried to the point of absurdity, but actually made a brilliant success of the production as a whole.

The story is legendary. Robert is the son of the archfiend by a human woman. Robert’s father, known as Bertram, but really the devil, ever follows him about, and seeks to lure him to destruction. The strain of purity in the drama is supplied by Robert’s foster-sister, Alice, who, if Bertram is the prototype of Mephistofeles in "Faust," may be regarded as the original of Michaela in "Carmen."

Robert, because of his evil deeds (inspired by Bertram), has been banished from Normandy, and has come to Sicily. He has fallen in love with Isabella, she with him. He is to attend a tournament at which she is to award the prizes. Tempted by Bertram, he gambles and loses all his possessions, including even his armour. These facts are disclosed in the first act. This contains a song by Raimbaut, the minstrel, in which he tells of Robert’s misdeeds, but is saved from the latter’s fury by Alice, who is betrothed to Raimbaut, and who, in an expressive air, pleads vainly with Robert to mend his ways and especially to avoid Bertram, from whom she instinctively shrinks. In the second act Robert and Isabella meet in the palace. She bestows upon him a suit of armour to wear in the tournament. But, misled by Bertram, he seeks his rival elsewhere than in the lists, and, by his failure to appear there, loses his honour as a knight. In the next act, laid in the cavern of St. Irene, occurs an orgy of evil spirits, to whose number Bertram promises to add Robert. Next comes a scene that verges upon the grotesque, but which is converted by Meyerbeer’s genius into something highly fantastic. This is in the ruined convent of St. Rosalie. Bertram summons from their graves the nuns who, in life, were unfaithful to their vows. The fiend has promised Robert that if he will but seize a mystic cypress branch from over the grave of Sr. Rosalie, and bear it away, whatever he wishes for will become his. The ghostly nuns, led by their Abbess, dance about him. They seek to inveigle him with gambling, drink, and love, until, dazed by their enticements, he seizes the branch. Besides the ballet of the nuns, there are two duets for Robert and Bertram – "Du rendezvous" (Our meeting place), and "Le bonheur est dans l’inconstance" (Our pleasure lies in constant change).

The first use Robert makes of the branch is to effect entrance into Isabella’s chamber. He threatens to seize her and bear her away, but yields to her entreaties, breaks the branch, and destroys the spell. In this act -- the fourth -- occurs the famous air for Isabella, "Robert, toi que j’aime" (Robert, whom I love).

Once more Bertram seeks to make with Robert a compact, the price for which shall be paid with his soul. But Alice, by repeating to him the last warning words of his mother, delays the signing of the compact until the clock strikes twelve. The spell is broken. Bertram disappears. The cathedral doors swing open disclosing Isabella, who, in her bridal robes, awaits Robert. The finale contains a trio for Alice, Robert, and Bertram, which is considered one of Meyerbeer’s finest inspirations.

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See also:
Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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