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meyerbeer le diable BZ1049
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Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864)
Robert le Diable (1831)
John Osborn : Robert, duc de Normandie
Nicolas Courjal : Bertram
Amina Edris : Alice, sœur de lait de Robert
Erin Morley : Isabelle, princesse de Sicile
Nico Darmanin : Raimbaut
Joel Allison : Alberti / Une Prêtre
Paco Garcia : Un Héraut d’armes
Marjolaine Horreaux : Première Choryphée
Lena Orye : Deuxieme Choryphèe
Olivier Bekretaoui : Chevalier
Luc Seignette : Chevalier et Troisième joueur
Jean-Philippe Fourcade : Chevalier et Premièr joueur
Simon Solas : Chevalier et Deuxième joueur
Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine
Chœur de l’Opéra National de Bordeaux/Marc Minkowski
rec. 2021, Auditorium de l’Opéra National de Bordeaux
BRU ZANE BZ1049 [3 CDs: 216]

I had thought that this was the first complete studio recording of this opera, as Bru Zane do not say at any point in the accompanying book that it was live, but it seems that it is actually a composite taken from three concert performances given on the 20, 23 and 25 September 2021 in Bordeaux. The recording dates that are given in the book also include 27 September, so presumably this was a patching session without an audience. There are two other officially issued live ones; one on Dynamic CDS 368/1–3 conducted by Renato Palumbo and another on Brilliant 94604 by Daniel Oren (neither apparently reviewed on MusicWeb except in passing - review), plus at least two other pirated ones. There is also the Covent Garden DVD (Opus Arte – OA 1106 D) from a performance in 2012 (review), but the production was generally disliked. I saw it three times and didn’t find it dreadful, unlike the only other Covent Garden Meyerbeer production in modern times. That was the appalling John Dew production of Les Huguenots under David Atherton in 1991, whose sets Jeremy Isaacs famously set alight in disgust after the run. At the first Robert performance, I found much of the music pretty ho-hum, but at each of the subsequent ones my opinion of it became more positive. Meyerbeer’s style is distinctly individual (indeed odd) and it takes a little time to acclimatise to it, but its finest parts have definite power and quality. A Meyerbeer revival has been predicted for at least the last 30 years, but never seems actually to arrive. The great difficulty of the vocal music undoubtedly plays a part in this, but I think it is far more to do with the composer’s reputation. I think many people just can’t hear beyond the contempt of Wagner and his followers; humankind loves to have someone it can look down on.

The performances in this recording are generally very fine. John Osborn has made a name in recent years in rare 19th century French opera, and is absolutely at home here in the role of Robert, Duke of Normandy (a real character whose illegitimate son, first known as William the Bastard, we all now know as William the Conqueror). His voice is possibly not quite what Meyerbeer would have expected in 1831 (I would think that there would have been considerably more head voice used for high notes than Osborn uses), but it is an excellent compromise with the expectations of present-day audiences. There is not a great deal of florid writing in this part (the florid tenor roles of Rossini were very much on the way out by this period) but there is some fioriture, and I was very pleased to hear a decent trill in the Act 1 Sicilienne. This “grace” is something that is still almost unknown today in male singers, despite the extraordinary excellence of so much modern Rossini singing. I have always been surprised that I have never heard Juan Diego Florez so much as attempt a trill. Many French male singers were able to trill into the 1920s, but the ability seemed to die out around that period. However Osborn is certainly not merely a technician, but an imaginative and sensitive artist; in this performance we have great dynamic variety, first rate legato, and a real feel for textual inflection. Listen to the recitative and Prière at the start of Act 2; this is exemplary singing. In a cast distinctly light on Francophone singers in the leading roles, his enunciation of the text is second only to Nicolas Courjal (the one French singer among them).

The tenor’s “love interest”, and the more important of the two soprano roles, is that of Isabelle, which is very well sung by Erin Morley. Her Act 4 aria, “Robert, toi que j’aime”, is the only aria from the opera which has had any appreciable life as a separate excerpt. Morley’s voice has a fine focus and she is also a thoughtful and imaginative interpreter, bringing real emotional involvement to that aria. There is also some very difficult florid passage-work in this role, for example in “Idole de ma vie” in Act 2 scene 3, in which she interpolates a sustained top E (there is a similar top F put into the Act 2 finale).

The other soprano role is that of Alice, who, in a typically operatic way, also loves Robert. She is sung by Amina Edris, who is also a fine singer with many of the same qualities as Morley. Ideally the two would have had less similar voices, though they almost never sing together, so there is no real possibility for confusion between them. Her enunciation of the text is, however, quite poor. Whenever she sings legato all the consonants are swallowed and often she is simply incomprehensible. This is real pity, as in all other respects her performance is very good.

The singer I find least satisfactory is Nicolas Courjal. Bertram describes himself as “Roi des enfers” (King of Hell), and such a role really does need a voice with more impressive resonance and command than Courjal possesses. He has the notes, no doubt about that, but the timbre is rather thin and grey and the top is not as steady as it should be. He is an intelligent singer, but he needs to be vocally and physically imposing to justify Alice’s terror at the mere sight of him. Even without going back to the 19th century, more recent singers who have sung the role include Boris Christoff (though in all honesty he doesn’t have even a nodding acquaintance with French style, and I certainly wouldn’t want his musical approach copied) and Samuel Ramey, and they both have the sort of stage-commanding personalities needed. The role has the two biggest hits of the opera, the “Valse infernale” and the “Évocation des nonnes”, both in Act 3, but here they go for next to nothing, though at least the text is admirably clear.

The comic role of Rambaut goes to Nico Darmanin, who makes a considerable success of it. Although he has the first aria in the opera (his Ballade “Jadis régnait en Normandie”), it is a role where personality and stage presence are more important than vocal quality, and these Darmanin has in abundance.

Orchestra and chorus are excellent. The Bordeaux orchestra has none of the scrawny string tone that I have found disagreeable in previous Bru Zane recordings under Niquet, and the woodwind have great character. The conductor, Marc Minkowski, has a very wide repertoire, but I have never associated him with French Grand Opéra (though he has done quite a lot of Offenbach), however, on the evidence here, he has a definite feel for the style. The recording quality is excellent.

The presentation is, as always with Bru Zane, exceptionally fine. The hardback book in French and English containing three very interesting essays plus full libretto, also in French and English, could hardly be bettered. I was pleased that for the first time Bru Zane has included in the libretto the texts of the small cuts made in the performance. This is important because on at least a couple of occasions, though the cut is merely a few lines of recitative, those few lines contained a plot point which helped make sense of what followed.

I’m very pleased that Bru Zane has returned to Grand Opéra, many of the recent issues have been of much slighter opéra-comique and opérette pieces. I wonder if I might put in a plea for a move forward in time to the later 19th and early 20th centuries, to what might be called French verismo, such as the operas of Bruneau, Reyer or Leroux, which have never had complete officially-issued recording. In the meantime, this set is very welcome.

Paul Steinson

Previous review: Michael Cookson (November 2022)

Published: November 28, 2022

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