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A Few Words About Robert le Diable

by Tom Kaufman

[Note: The following was originally published in conjunction with the revival of Robert le Diable at the Paris Opera in 1984. It has been reprinted with the express permission of the author, who has made some revisions to the text based on later developments.]

In 1831, before the premiere of Robert le Diable, Giacomo Meyerbeer was just aother face in the crowd of operatic composers who were active in Italy, France and Germany. True, his Il Crociato in Egitto (Venice, 1824) had been a major international success, and had triumphed at the Theatre Italien a few seasons before, first with Giuditta Pasta, then with Rosamunda Pisaroni. But the success of Il Crociato never eclipsed that of any of the major Rossini operas, and it had already become more or less passé by then. It had not been heard in Paris or in London since 1828. Other operas and composers were the rage in Paris by 1831, especially Auber's La Muette de Portici (Paris, 1828) and Rossini's William Tell (Paris, 1829). Robert le Diable was not only to catapult Meyerbeer into a renown (temporarily) even eclipsing that of Rossini, especially in Paris, but was also to have a very significant effect on the history of opera to the extent that it was a factor in causing Rossini to retire from composing any more operas.

Meyerbeer moved his domicile to Paris by 1827. Influenced by the success of Weber's Der Freischutz, he decided to do an opera with the Devil as its central character. By the spring of 1827 he was already working on a three-act opera comique for the Theatre Feydeau on the subject of Robert le Diable. But the success of La Muette in 1828, was one of the factors which caused him to change to a five act version for the opera. Both La Muette and Tell pointed the way towards increased realism in the mis en scene and more expanded use of the chorus -- ideas of integrating these elements, The seeds of these elements were already planted in Crociato, and the salesmanship of Louis Veron, the director of the Opéra, gave Meyerbeer the final impetus for the switch to a grand opera.

The world premiere took place at the Paris Opera on November 21, 1831, a little more than two years after the premiere of William Tell. The cast was headed by Julie Dorus-Gras as Alice, Laure Cinti-Damoreau as Isabelle, Adolphe Nourrit as Robert and Nicolas Prosper Levasseur as Bertram. It was widely acclaimed by both the press and public, with cash receipts reaching levels that would have been deemed impossible a few years earlier. By April, 1834, the opera passed the 100 performance mark, a good five months ahead of William Tell, even though the Rossini opera had had a 27 month head start. In the meantime it had been translated into both English and German (two versions of each) and had started its triumphant tour of the civilized world. In 1832 it was heard in London, Berlin, Strasbourg, Dublin and Liege. In 1833 it reached Brussels, Copenhagen, Vienna and Marseille. Lyons, New York (in English), Budapest, Le Haye, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg were some of the cities to hear it in 1834. Its first American performance in the original French took place in New Orleans on December 24, 1836. It was not translated into Italian until 1838, when it was given in Lisbon; a different Italian version was used for its Italian premiere in Florence in 1840. Its tour of the Western world continuned at a rapid pace during the next forty years. It was even given in Calcutta in 1836, Batavia in 1850, and Manila in 1874. The opera also served to launch the career of the great tenor Mario, who made his debut in the role of Robert in Paris on November 30, 1838. Meyerbeer even composed an additional tenor aria for the occasion. Strangely, some eleven years later, when Mario was already regarded as the world's leading tenor, he sang the lesser role of Raimbaut at Covent Garden, with the almost as important Enrico Tamberlick singing Robert. Other famous interpreters of the role include Gaetano Fraschini, Roberto Stagno, Angelo Masini, Julian Guayarre, Jean de Reszke, Leon Escalais, Gilbert louis Duprez and Italo Campanini. In fact, just about every famous nineteenth century dramatic tenor sang Robert at one time or another.

During that century the role of Alice was generally considered much more significant than that of Isabelle, and when there were two prima donnas in a company, the more important of the two almost invariably picked the role. Thus Giulia Grisi, Pauline Viardot, Jenny Lind, Gemma Bellincioni, Sofia Cruvelli and Rosina Stoltz were all famous Alices, with Lind and Viardot even occasionally singing both roles in the same performance. Relatively few famous singers sang Isabelle in the 19th century without singing Alice as well. However, some years after the premiere, when Cornelie Falcon sang Alice, Dorus-Gras sang Isabelle. Other Isabelles include Anna de la Grange, Alwina Valleria, Maria Gazzaniga, and of course, Renata Scotto and June Anderson. But, in spite of the great singers who interpreted the roles of Alice and Robert, it was almost always considered the bass' opera in the previous century, as it is today. Thus, after Levasseur, some of the great bertrams included Prosper Derivis, Karl Formes, Feodor Chaliapin, Antonio Tamburini, Boris Christoff and Samuel Ramey.

The operatic repertory changed drastically during the 1880's and 1890's, as Wagner started to become greatly respected outside of Germany. Meyerbeer's operas began to fade from the scene, and perhaps because of the fiendish difficulties of the title role, Robert le Diable was the first of the grand Operas to go. It had occasional revivals even in the twentieth century, such as New Orleans and Nice in 1901, Paris (at the Gaite Lyrique) in 1911, Barcelona in 1917, Vienna (at the Volksoper) in 1921 and Bordeaux in 1928. Its first postwar revival took place in Florence in 1968, but in an incomplete Italian version.

Robert le Diable launched Meyerbeer on a fantastically brilliant career. His next opera, Les Huguenots (Paris, 1836), was soon to be, along with Don Giovanni, one of the operas most admired by nineteeth century audiences and critics. After this, each of his new opera was anxiously awaited and (with the exception of the relatively unsuccessful Vielka) made a rapid tour of all the world's opera houses, reaching unprecendented heights of popularity. If La Muette de Portici and William Tell were the cornerstones of French grand opera, then Robert le Diable was the foundation. It departs far more from Rossini's Italian operas than either William Tell or any of the Bellini and Donizetti operas composed until then. For example, there are hardly any cabalettas (one was later composed for Mario) and much more attention is paid to the dramatic aspects as well as the emotions of the characters than Rossini ever paid. The best examples of this occur in scenes such as the "Valse Infernale," the scene where Alice recognizes Bertram as the Devil, the invocation to the nuns in the third act, the dramatic duet between Robert and Isabelle in the fourth act, and the striking final trio in the fifth act where Alice and Bertram fight for Robert's soul. The art form of French grand opera was to thrive almost throughout the nineteenth century and to have a profound influence on all of opera, including Verdi (his Aida was an italian version of grand opera) and Wagner (consider Rienzi and even Tannhauser). Some of the most important of these grand operas include works like Les Huguenots, Le Prophete, L'Africaine, Don Carlos, Aida and La Juive. But many other operas, from Mercandante's Il Bravo to Petrella's Jone, Ponchielli's La Giaconda, Gounod's Faust and even Goldmark's Die Konigin von Saba show strong signs of Meyerbeer's influence.

The 1984 revival by the Paris opera was the first in that city since 1911, and the first at the Opera since 1893. (It was later given in New York City with Sam Ramey again plus the great Chris Merritt as Robert. He even sang the aria composed for Mario's debut.) to return to the Paris performance, the entire cast outdid themselves, but Ramey in the central role was at his very best. This performance should long serve as a landmark to great bass singing. It was originally hoped that the importance and success of this revival would not only inspire the Paris opera to do more French mid nineteenth century works, such as Halevy's La Reine de Chypre, Auber's Haydée and Gustave III as well as Donizetti's Dom Sebastian, but this has not yet happened. It was also hoped that it would inspire Mr. Ramey to add more of the great bass roles of the period to his repertory. Some suggestions might include Aladino in Meyerbeer's Il Crociato in Egitto, the title role in Donizetti's Marino Faliero, the Drum Major in Thomas' Le Caid, and, if I may be permitted a sleeper, the role of Massimiliano in Mercandante's I Briganti.

A performance of a new critical edition of Robert le Diable is now scheduled in Berlin in the year 2000. Hopefully the cast and reception will be equal to the occasion.

Meyerbeer Fan Club Home Page

The story of Robert le Diable

"Mario-Aria" by Dr. Wolfgang Kühnhold

Interview with Chris Merritt, with Clarissa Lablache

Review of Robert le Diable by Tom Kaufman

"Mario-aria" libretto