Grand opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 3 hours 23 minutes.
This was the first of Meyerbeer’s grand operas, and for a time it was the most performed. This might seem odd today, as it is probably the least performed today and has a comparatively un-relatable medieval setting and Faustian struggle between the forces of good and evil.
PLOT: Palermo, Sicily, 13th century. Norman knight Robert is in love with the Princess Isabelle and is the friend of Bertram, who he doesn’t know is actually a devil, and something else as well. Robert’s half-sister Alice shows up and complicates things with her engagement to Robert’s minstrel Raimbaut. In the end good, and Alice, win and Robert and Isabelle are wed with Bertram losing the diabolical wager.
NOTE: Like all Meyerbeer operas every recording some numbers are left out and others retained. This review is of the Valle d’Itria production with Patrizia Ciofi available under the Dynamic label. There are other versions although none of them appear to be complete, some are just “more complete” than others.
LOOK OUT FOR:
0: The overture **, is based on a single sinister tune. Some of this will sound like early Verdi. It is so diabolic. Notice especially the bassoon which represents Bertram and Meyerbeer’s usage of orchestral dissonance to create his devilish effect.
ACT 1: Palermo, the beach.
4: A rather standard but entertaining drinking chorus praising wine and women opens the act *.
8: After Robert and Bertram come on the scene, Raimbaut introduces his song about some “Robert the devil” to an agreeable orchestral scat. The song ** itself revolves around the circumstances of Robert’s conception: his mother Berthe was a Norman princess seduced by a demon (this is emphasized). The orchestration here can be rather strange in places, not quite chromatic but the Meyerbeerean “off” sound comes into play here for sure.
15: Robert is enraged by the song as HE is the Robert of the song. He upbraids Raimbaut who apologizes, but he condemns him to death and only relents when Raimbaut reveals that he is engaged to be married, Robert hoping to seduce the fiancee before the wedding night. It turns out to be his half-sister Alice (seduction officially off). This brings on the close of the introduction with a skipping repeat of the opening chorus *. Notice the bassoons low down foreshadowing the demonic and Alice’s vocal line.
20: Alice greets her brother rather formally and Robert tells her off for this. She has put off her wedding to Raimbaut because she has to deliver a message from their mother, who has just died in a rather graceful aria **. She has a will for him to read, but he refuses for the time being to read it.
29: In the ensuing recitative there is much plot development: Alice learns about Isabelle from Robert and offers to take a letter from him to her. He is to fight in a tournament for her hand the following day. The orchestration enriches as Bertram shows up silently * and eventually Alice leaves.
35: Bertram gets Robert to start gambling and to sing a Sicilienne accompanied by the soldiers in praise of gambling **.
39: Robert loses his money, jewels, ship, horses, and finally his armour. Notice the orchestration of the entire scene **. There are hints of music from earlier in the act.
41: An ensemble as Robert attacks his creditors and Bertram all but laughs at Robert ends the act **.
ACT 2: A great hall in the palace of the King of Sicily.
0: After a low temperature but okay entr’acte *, Isabelle comes into the hall and declares that she is tired of grandeur.
2, 9: She has also given up hope that Robert will fight in the tournament that day for her hand in a rather sweet coloratura aria **. Her maidens arrive to what is almost a comic opera chorus along with Alice and the letter from Robert which gives her some renewed hope *.
12: After Alice encounters Robert briefly and fills him in he goes into a nice duet with Isabelle *. It does have some good coloratura if it is a bit low temp otherwise as they make their vows of love.
15: The tournament is about to start with an outside march. The second half other duet consists of even more coloratura from the two lovers to a bouncy tune ** and an almost “farmer in the dell” sort of orchestral conclusion. Bertram shows up and Robert hopes for victory in the tournament (which Bertram, in an aside, claims is only possible through his powers). A herald arrives announcing the arrival of the Prince of Grenada who is the favourite. Bertram decides to disappear Robert by telling him the Prince is in the forest ready to fight him there, so Robert misses the competition.
23: The attendees give us a grand and tuneful choral reflection while on their way ***.
27: The nine minute ballet depicting the wedding of five couples *, starts off sweetly. In the second half it starts to take on at first a mildly sinister and then a grand statement before returning to a now fast paced take on sweetness with the flute plugging away. The last minutes goes from menacing to jolly parade music in seconds.
39: The herald returns to tell Isabelle that the Prince of Grenada has asked that she might present him with his arms and Bertram revels in his victory (in making Robert lose). Alice and Raimbaut come on. Isabelle leads all in a high coloratura song in praise of chivalry just as she opens the tournament **. There are two highlights, one more jovial starting out and the other romantic but becoming more triumphant toward the end as the Prince of Grenada is announced as the victor and Isabelle exclaims on a high note. Curtain.
SCENE 1: The rocks of Ste. Irene, a mountainous place.
2: An entr’acte that depicts a lovely countryside drives us toward an encounter between Raimbaut and Bertram. Raimbaut has one really good and repeated tune here **. Bertram convinces him to leave Alice for money.
10: Bertram is gleeful over deceiving Raimbaut and ruining Alice’s wedding plans. He soon calls upon all the forces of hell to himself in a rather spooky chorus from a cave ***. They tell him that he needs to attain the soul of his son, Robert or otherwise he (Bertram) will be ordered back to hell. Bertram genuinely love his son, but demonic command outweighs all.
16, 20: Alice comes on looking for Raimbaut with whom she was going to have a rendezvous. After the cheeriness of the first part of her air * in which she remembers leaving Normandy with the hope of true love with Raimbaut, the second is scary as she finds the cave and hears the demons calling out her brother’s name ** and prays to God to protect her. She hears the demons telling Bertram that unless Robert signs away his soul to Satan by midnight Bertram will lose his son forever.
23: Bertram confronts the terrified Alice. It is oddly jolly although there is enough here to recognize that Alice is utterly afraid *. Bertram becomes more threatening as Alice gains strength and calls upon God. He knows that she knows everything and forces her to swear to be silent.
30: Robert comes on and Alice tries to warn him against Bertram in an a cappella trio **. Robert goes into some extreme coloratura. Alice flees.
37: Robert is sad about losing Isabelle and Bertram tells him that he can still win her with the help of a magic branch to be found at the tomb of St. Rosalie. A rather exciting duet ends the scene, Robert with mad tenor coloratura flying in every direction **, sandwiching Robert’s fears that to steal the branch would be sacrilege.
SCENE 2: The ruined cloister of Ste. Rosalie, a statue of same at centre.
42: Spooky music. Bertram comes on and summons the wicked dead nuns from their tombs to the theme from the overture **. So on with the ballet!
45: The procession of the nuns is scary * with a near Wagnerian dramatic quality to its sinisterness.
48: Bertram orders the nuns to seduce Robert *.
49: The Bacchanal is a mad bit and borders on kitsch. Flutes dancing about like they are on psychedelics but very tuneful singular melody *. At the very end there is another take **.
53: Robert shows up and take the branch from the statue of Ste. Rosalie. He has a nice little song * finishing off with something that sounds just a little like what will be the storm music in L’Africaine.
55: Now there are three short dances *. The first is flute madness. The second is rather standard, nice and mild. The third is agreeable and somewhat ardent.
62: The nuns and their wicked abbess try to detain Robert in a brief but furious choral finale *.
ACT 4: Isabelle’s bedchamber.
8: It is nighty-night to Isabelle in a rather silly but serviceable opening chorus (the libretto rhymes “belle” and “Isabelle”) as she bestows gifts on six of her ladies who are getting married in the morning. She and Alice prep for bed and talk about where Robert might be. Alice has decided to go back home to Normandy. They are interrupted by a rather frightful chorus, this time giving Isabelle gifts from the Prince of Grenada whom she will marry the next day, they just as quickly leave. All of this is okay, but it is also just a little dim. Finally Robert arrives and freezes everyone with the power of the magic branch, saving everything with a fine but almost quiet aria as he gazes at Isabelle’s beauty *. He orders that she be unfrozen and able to see him.
11: The Robert-Isabelle duet * begins with rather sinister music, until she finally actively resists him.
15: Suddenly, Isabelle tells Robert that she loves him and asks him for mercy in the most mystical aria ***. He tries to resists her request but eventually he gives in and breaks the magic twig and everyone is unfrozen again.
23: Apparently Raimbaut has returned to Alice because he is here. The court revives and Robert is arrested by Isabelle’s guards, somewhat against her will, and she collapses. The last minute or so includes are rather amazing crescendo that comes in totally unexpected and gives a lot of pleasure after the comparative weaknesses of this act as a whole ***.
SCENE 1: Before the Cathedral of Palermo.
1: Organ music, the first time it was ever used in opera, begins the act as Robert escapes prison. There is an a cappella prayer by a priest and chorus *.
7: Robert and Bertram come on and father convinces son that the only way to get what he wants is to sign a contract with Satan. Robert exclaims when the chorus comes in again *. Isabelle and the Prince of Grenada enter the Cathedral for their wedding and Robert rejects Bertram, who then reveals that he is Robert’s father.
10: Bertram tries to convince Robert to sign the contract **. If he signs the pact, Bertram will make the prince disappear and Robert will be able to marry Isabelle.
15: Alice shows up determined to foil Bertram’s plan. The Alice-Robert-Bertram trio *** is the climax of the story as Robert and Alice cry out the name of Jesus and Bertram loses.
20: Suddenly there is a rather modern accompaniment in the orchestra as Bertram makes one last attempt at Robert before Alice reveals that in her will, their mother gave him a warning to reject his father, her seducer, and a demon. The bells toll midnight and he sinks into the earth ***.
SCENE 2: The interior of the Cathedral, Isabelle awaiting Robert at the altar.
25: The chorus invites Robert to wed Isabelle who praises God with Alice as the curtain falls **.
If the plot of this operas seems a bit thin, there is good reason for that. It was originally meant to be a three-act opera comique. It was only about half-way through production that it was decided that the work be expanded into the five-act grand opera structure that we know today. I must admit that Meyerbeer does remarkably well with conveying the sense of the demonic in his music, almost rather uniquely in opera. The Faustian elements of the story might not be as attractive today as they were in the 1830s. Also, how the Jewish Meyerbeer was able to keep a straight face while working with a libretto with such a complex and irrational demonology one can only wonder. He did pull off a great show, though, and it is a great shame that this work is not as well known as it once was. The orchestral dissonance one finds also in Le Prophete is very much a feature of this score and it becomes rather fun to spot the clashing instruments in the first, third, and to a less extent the fifth, acts. If I can fault the opera it would be for its characters who are more stereotypes than real people. Isabelle in particular is a rather annoyingly passive character and Alice gains most of our sympathy specifically because she ends up so strong. Robert himself has some rather amazingly high music to sing but is somewhat a wet and Bertram is also but not quite a standard operatic devil. I wish we had more of Raimbaut, he essentially disappears after the opening of act 3 and where he and Alice end up never is disclosed. I also wished the opening to act 4 was more interesting. However, it must be admitted that this is the only one of Meyerbeer’s four grand operas that ends on a happy note. A-.