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Giacomo Meyerbeer

Robert the Devil

Giacomo Meyerbeer, original name Jakob Liebmann Meyer Beer, (born Sept. 5, 1791, Tasdorf, near Berlin—died May 2, 1864, Paris), German opera composer who established in Paris a vogue for spectacular romantic opera.

Born of a wealthy Jewish family, Meyerbeer studied composition in Berlin and later at Darmstadt, where he formed a friendship with C.M. von Weber. His early German operas, produced at Munich, Stuttgart, and Vienna, were failures, and after a journey to Paris and London he settled in 1816 in Italy, where he produced five operas in the style of Rossini. The best of these was Il crociato (Venice, 1824), given the following year in London and Paris. His first French opera, written in association with Eugène Scribe, was Robert le Diable (Paris, 1831), produced on an extremely lavish scale and calculated to appeal to the current romantic taste for medievalism, the supernatural, and the macabre. Its success was immediate, establishing this work as the model of French grand opera. Les Huguenots was similarly successful in 1836.

In 1842 Meyerbeer temporarily returned to Berlin, where he became music director to the King of Prussia and where he prompted the production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer. During this period he wrote a German opera, Ein Feldlager in Schlesien (1844), in which Jenny Lind took the principal part. His third romantic opera on a libretto of Scribe, Le Prophète, was given in Paris in 1849. He then turned to a lighter style and produced two works in the tradition of the opéra comique, L’Etoile du nord (1854) and Le Pardon de Ploërmel (1859). His last opera, L’Africaine, was in rehearsal at the time of his death.

Grand opera is a genre of 19th-century opera generally in four or five acts, characterized by large-scale casts and orchestras, and (in their original productions) lavish and spectacular design and stage effects, normally with plots based on or around dramatic historic events. The term is particularly applied (sometimes specifically using in its French language equivalent grand opéra, pronounced [ɡʁɑ̃t‿ɔpeˈʁa]) to certain productions of the Paris Opéra from the late 1820s to around 1850; 'grand opéra' has sometimes been used to denote the Paris Opéra itself.

The term 'grand opera' is also used in a broader application in respect of contemporary or later works of similar monumental proportions from France, Germany, Italy and other countries.

It may also be used colloquially in an imprecise sense to refer to 'serious opera without spoken dialogue'.

Poster for the 1831 first performance of Meyerbeer's Robert,
which launched the composer's fame as a creator of the genre of Grand Opera

Robert le Diable - G. Meyerbeer part I
Thomas Fulton avec l' orchesthe et choeurs de l'Opera de Paris
Rockwell Blake - Samuel Ramey - Walter Donati - June Anderson - Michéle Lagrange

Robert le Diable - G. Meyerbeer part II

Robert le Diable - G. Meyerbeer part III

Robert le diable (Robert the Devil) is an opera in five acts composed by Giacomo Meyerbeer from a libretto written by Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne. Robert le diable is regarded as one of the first grand operas at the Paris Opéra. It has only a superficial connection to the medieval legend of Robert the Devil.

The opera was immediately successful from its first night on 21 November 1831 at the Opéra; the dramatic music, harmony and orchestration, its melodramatic plot, its star singers and its sensational stage effects compelled Frédéric Chopin, who was in the audience, to say, "If ever magnificence was seen in the theatre, I doubt that it reached the level of splendour shown in Robert... It is a masterpiece... Meyerbeer has made himself immortal". Robert initiated the European fame of its composer, consolidated the fame of its librettist, Scribe, and launched the reputation of the new director of the Opéra, Louis-Désiré Véron, as a purveyor of a new genre of opera. It also had influence on development of the ballet, and was frequently mentioned and discussed in contemporary French literature.

Robert continued as a favourite in opera houses all over the world throughout the nineteenth century. After a period of neglect, it began to be revived towards the end of the twentieth century.


Robert le diable
(Robert the Devil)

Grand opera in five acts and seven scenes composed by Giacomo Meyerbeer
from a libretto written by Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne

Robert, Duke of Normandy                    -  tenor
Isabelle, Princess of Sicily Palmide      -  soprano    
, Robert's friend                        -  bass-baritone  
, Robert's half-sister                        -  soprano    
Raimbaut, a minstrel                              -  tenor  
Alberti, a knight                                   - 
Herald                                                      -  tenor  
Lady-in-waiting to Isabelle              -  soprano  
Priest                                                        -  bass    
Prince of Granada                               -  silent    
Hėléna, Abbess                                       -  ballerina

Time: 11th century
Place: Palermo
Premiere cast, November 21, 1831

Degas: "Ballet of the Nuns" from Act 3 of Robert le diable (1876 version)



On the shore at Palermo


Robert and his mysterious friend Bertram are among a group of knights who are preparing to compete in a tournament for the hand of Princess Isabelle. They all praise wine, women and gambling (Versez à tasses pleines). Robert's attendant Raimbaut sings a ballad about a beautiful princess from Normandy who married a devil; the princess had a son, Robert, known as 'le diable'. Robert indignantly reveals that he is the son in question and condemns Raimbaut to death. Raimbaut begs for pardon and tells Robert that he is engaged to marry. Robert relents and relishes the thought of the droit du seigneur. Raimbaut's fianceé arrives; Robert recognizes her as his foster-sister Alice and pardons Raimbaut. Alice tells Robert that his mother has died and that her last words were a warning about a threatening dark force (Va! Va! dit-elle). She offers Robert his mother's will. Robert is too overcome to read it and asks Alice to keep it for the present. Robert expresses his longing for his beloved Isabelle and Alice offers to take a letter to her. Alice warns Robert to beware of Bertram but he ignores her. With Bertram's encouragement, Robert gambles with the knights and loses all of his money, as well as his armour.


A room in the palace at Palermo


Isabelle is sad at Robert's absence and expresses her unease that their marriage will never take place (En vain j’espère). She is delighted when she receives Robert's letter. Robert arrives and the pair express their pleasure at being together again. Isabelle provides him with new armour for the tournament. Robert is preparing for the tournament when Bertram suddenly appears and persuades Robert to go to a nearby forest, claiming that the Prince of Granada, his rival for Isabelle's love, wants to fight with him. When Robert has left, the court gathers to celebrate the marriage of six couples with dancing. The Prince of Granada enters and asks Isabelle to present him with arms for the tournament. Isabelle expresses her sorrow at Robert's disappearance but prepares to open the tournament, singing in praise of chivalry (La trompette guerrière).


The countryside near Palermo

Bertram meets Raimbaut, who has arrived for an assignation with Alice. He gives him a bag of gold and advises him not to marry Alice as his new wealth will attract plenty of women (Ah! l’honnête homme). Raimbaut leaves and Bertram gloats at having corrupted him. Bertram reveals that Robert, to whom he is truly devoted, is his son; he then enters an adjoining cave to commune with the spirits of hell. Alice enters and expresses her love for Raimbaut (Quand je quittai la Normandie). She overhears strange chanting coming from the cave and decides to listen; she learns that Bertram will lose Robert forever if he cannot persuade him to sign away his soul to the Devil by midnight. On emerging from the cave, Bertram realizes that Alice has heard everything (Mais Alice, qu’as-tu donc?). He threatens her and she promises to keep silent. Robert arrives, mourning the loss of Isabelle, and Bertram tells him that to win her he should seize a magic branch from the tomb of Saint Rosalia in a nearby deserted cloister. Although to take it is sacrilege, the branch will give Robert magical powers. Robert declares that he will be bold and do as Bertram instructs. Bertram leads Robert to the cloister. The ghosts of nuns rise from their tombs, beckoned by Bertram, and dance, praising the pleasures of drinking, gambling and lust. Robert seizes the branch and fends off the demons who surround him.


A room in the palace


Isabelle is preparing for her marriage with the Prince of Granada. Alice rushes in to inform her of what she has learnt about Robert, but she is interrupted by envoys of the Prince who enter bearing gifts. Robert arrives and, using the power of the branch, freezes everyone except himself and Isabelle.

Unsettled by the power he's wielding, he confesses to Isabelle that he is using witchcraft, but begs her not to reject him. She expresses her love for him and implores him to repent (Robert, toi que j'aime). Robert breaks the branch and the spell it has created, and is taken into custody by Isabelle's attendants.


Outside Palermo Cathedral


A group of monks extol the power of the Church. Bertram has freed Robert from the guards and the two arrive to prevent the marriage of Isabelle to the Prince of Granada. Bertram attempts to get Robert to sign a document in which he promises to serve Bertram for all eternity. He reveals to Robert that he is his true father and Robert decides to sign the oath from filial devotion. Before he can do so, Alice appears with the news that the Prince has been prevented from marrying Isabelle. Alice prays for divine help (Dieu puissant, ciel propice) and hands Robert his mother's will. Robert reads his mother's message, in which she warns him to beware the man who seduced and ruined her. Robert is wracked by indecision. Midnight strikes and the time for Bertram's coup is past. He is drawn down to hell. Robert is reunited with Isabelle in the cathedral, to great rejoicing.

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