Berlin 2000 

1. An account of two extraordinary performances of Robert le Diable in March, 2000

2. Marina Mescheriakova speaks about her performance as Alice in Robert le Diable Berlin, 2000  (added June 12, 2002)

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Marc Minkowski: 'Nunca trabajo con especialistas' 


An account of two extraordinary performances of Robert le Diable in March, 2000

by Stephen A. Agus

It would take a tome to describe our entire trip to Berlin -- but many of our members have already been there to witness the wonderful, nearly uncut production of Robert le Diable containing over four hours of glorious music, much of which has never before been heard by any person alive today.   It is actually difficult to put into words, but let me put it simply this way -- if you have heard any negative comment about this production, let me assure you that to the extent that the staging is somewhat novel and possibly controversial, it in no way diminishes the music or the voices -- nor does it stain the remarkable achievement of Conductor Marc Minkowski, who must be heralded as THE Meyerbeer conductor of the decades to come.  In fact, seen as a whole, the production of Georg Quander must be considered as a brilliant and innovative interpretation of the opera.

Let me state at the outset that mixed feelings accompanied all of us to Meyerbeer's birthplace and homeland, the now reunited city of Berlin.  The same city which today presents us with Robert le Diable at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (that same house which featured Meyerbeer as Kappelmeister in the 1840's) is the place next to which the Nazis burned books in 1932, and a few blocks to the East of the nefarious wall which cut right in front of the Brandenburg gate.  There, at that gate, on the border between East and West, in the shadow of today's Reichstag, and a few blocks from the Street of Terror, housing the SS headquarters, stood the Beer family villa, and later the Beer family home, right at number 6A Paris Square (Pariser Platz).  Today, cars go through that gate, and for the first time since 1933 Meyerbeer is now remembered there, with a sleek new cafe called the "Meyerbeer Palais Cafe", which serves up gourmet lunches to government officials and tourists alike, who are each given a card with their "rechnung" (meal check) stating "Wer war Meyerbeer?"  The restaurant itself has portraits, a bust of Meyerbeer and music adorning its walls.

Then also was one day that eight of us took the U-bahn to Senenfeld Platz, and walked two blocks to the small, old Jewish Cemetery at Schonhauser-Allee, there to look for the grave of Giacomo Meyerbeer, who was interred there on May 9, 1864, one week after his death in Paris.  For Meyerbeer insisted that he not be buried in exile in Paris -- and insisted that he was both a Jew and  Berliner to his dying breath.

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Marc Minkowski

Marc Minkowski is a 37 year old Parisian conductor who was tapped by the Staatsoper's Georg Quander to conduct Robert le Diable, utilizing much new music from the newly released critical edition, the child of the Meyerbeer Institut's Dr. Wolfgang Kuhnhold  and his team of scholars.  As it turned out, Minkowski was a brilliant choice.  Minkowski had not ever conducted a Meyerbeer score before, but he was steeped in French musical tradition, Rameau, Lully and Gluck in particular.  And so, Minkowski found a direct linkage between Gluck and Meyerbeer.  Beyond that, he fell in love with the music of Robert le Diable.  More later on that.

We arrived in Berlin on the 13th, just two days after the premiere, which we were told was successful.  The first performance we were to see was on the 14th in the evening.  The opera was scheduled for 5 hours with two intermissions -- the first between acts 2 and 3 and the second between 3 and 4.  We planned our eating accordingly.

Here is the cast:

Jianyi Zhang..............................Robert
Stephan Rügamer....................Raimbaut
Kwangchul Youn......................Bertram
Marina Mescheriakova.............Alice
Nelly Miricioiu..........................Isabelle

Conductor:  Marc Minkowski

Production:  Georg Quander

Now, before we left, some of our MFC friends were muttering because the bass-baritone of New York's Metropolitan roster, Scandiuzzi, was pulled from the role of Bertram in January -- some of our friends told us that they had second thoughts about attending.  Let me assure you first of all that there was a good reason for Scandiuzzi to be pulled, and secondly, that Kwangchul was better than I could have hoped for, equal to the task, and nearly the equal of a younger Samuel Ramey in this role.  We will never really know, because Mr. Youn sang some music in this production which Ramey never sang -- including a magnificent, lyrical, bass love aria to Robert in Act 5, in waltz form that brought down the house. This piece was originally written by Meyerbeer for the role, but Levasseur could not manage the high notes and it was scrapped.  Scandiuzzi couldn't handle it either and he was scrapped.  But Mr. Youn sang it beautifully.

There was a lot of other added music, from an added "B" section to the opening chorus (missing in the 1985 Paris version), an a cappella trio, a whole new section for Isabelle's first aria with chorus -- carrying with a it a whole new cadenza section, and now putting the aria back into a standard A-B-A format, and the list goes on and on in scene after scene and serves to extend the pleasure.  There is a five minute long a capella trio.  There is a new ballet in Act II (written by Meyerbeer for Berlin performances). None of it is boring in the least, despite its length in absolute terms.

Ms. Mescheriakova is without doubt the finest Alice heard in these last fifty years, sliding effortlessly up and down the limits of her range -- he voice sounding bell-like and clear.  She had slight difficulty, if at all with the trills.  Nevertheless, the total effect was thrilling.

Ms. Miricioiu has now established herself as a friend of Meyerbeer, having performed Gli Amori de Teolinda at Utrecht last year.  She is a true professional.  However, those who were expecting a reprise of the June Anderson performance in 1985 Paris, or the Renata Scotto performance in 1968 Florence were disappointed.  Actually, Maestro Minkowski brilliantly worked with Ms. Miricioiu to insure that the cadenzas fit her vocal range, and the result that followed was that we heard a true Isabelle who did not overshadow Alice.  So while the vocal pyrotechnics of a youthful voice were less florid with this Isabelle, a more balanced production resulted.

If there could be a "perfect" tenor for the role of Robert, Mr. Zhang would have been it.  This is not a tenor's opera, despite the fact that it is a title role, and despite the stage time the tenor has from act I through act V.  Without the "Mario aria" there is very little in fact for the tenor to have as his own.  Mr. Zhang execute the Mario aria with vigor and grace, and a recording will bear out that he was the equal of Chris Merritt of fifteen years ago at Carnegie Hall.

Now as to the staging -- it is a modern interpretation of the old story, and entirely the brainchild of Georg Quander -- who brilliantly updated and modernized the production, adding a new layer of interpretation, without destruction of the composer's intent.  The old story of Robert le Diable is told as a movie -- but the projectionist in the theater imagines himself to be Robert le Diable and insinuates himself into the picture a la Woody Allen in his movie The Purple Rose of Cairo.  The two characters outside of the picture are Robert and his half sister Alice.  This all comes full circle in Act IV, when the characters on the screen burst out after being awakened from the trance.

Now we've heard objections about the St. Rosalie scene which includes, strip-tease, garter belts and a nude scene.  Anyone who thinks this is needlessly irreverent should read a little more about the Tomb of St. Rosalia (the patron Saint of Sicily).  I did.  It happens that I was reading "The Talented Mr. Ripley" on the way over.  (If you've seen the movie, read the book).  Mr. Ripley give a full description of the sexually suggestive tomb.  Read it, and this production of  Robert le Diable will make more sense to you.

We saw two performances, on the 14th and the 19th of March and would have loved to have stayed on for more had time permitted.

Marc Minkowski granted Meyerbeer Fan Club an exclusive interview after the performance on the 19th.  This is what he told us:  Before the performance, Maestro Minkowski went to Meyerbeer's grave and did a television interview.  He was shocked (as we were later shocked) to see the condition of the cemetery, with all the graves overturned, and he was reduced to tears.  He was acutely aware that this production of Robert le Diable at the Staatsoper was an event of historic significance for Berlin, for Berlin's Jews, and for Opera.

Minkowski's understanding of the significance of the opera extended to its musical significance as well.  It was obvious that while conducting the opera, Maestro Minkowski demonstrated not only an understanding of the composer's intention, but a love of the music.  Asked about that, Minkowski said,

" I love Meyerbeer's music because it is unique.  It is music in the EXTREME.  It is like the greatest horror movie you could ever see, it is like Star Wars, it goes beyond your wildest fantasies.  It has no constraints.  And yet, the music descends into extreme delicacy, with a single instrument or pair of instruments and very soft tones."

I'd like to acknowledge the following fan club members who were in Berlin with us, some of whom we did not see, and most of who we did:

Martin Reyes, Eugene Blum, Ros Chelouche, Manuel and Gloria Marquez-Sterling, Bill and Annla Neikam, Roger Wallen, Marty Lippman, Reinhold and Ulrike Becker, Robert Letellier, and of course, our host and mentor, Dr. Wolfgang Kühnhold.


Marina Mescheriakova speaks about her performance as Alice in Robert le Diable Berlin, 2000  (added June 12, 2002)

Excerpt from article and interview published in The Metropolitan Opera Guild's Opera News, July, 2002: 

Her happy collaborations haven't always come easy.  Take, for example, her encounter with Georg Quander's modem interpretation of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable in Berlin. She was cast as Alice,  the Norman peasant-girl. “I was really unhappy with my costume," she says. "It was irreverent, something from the 1930s or '40s, a short, short skirt, very thick materials, and a funny hat. It looked ridiculous, and it made me look fat, me with my short legs. When I saw the design sketches, I said, 'I will look horrible, not like a young, scared girl.' But you can't change the whole concept of a production. You have to find something to make the concept work for you. I decided to take advantage of the silly look, to make Alice a funny person, strange, prone to mistakes. It made sense. Of course I wore the costume. Since I couldn't do the role the old Romantic way, I had to find a compromise. The production was a huge success, and the public liked my singing a lot. It turned out to be a great experience."


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