Giacomo Meyerbeer, born Jakob Liebmann Meyer Beer, September 5, 1791, in Tasdorf, near Berlin, Germany, is the 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.
Opera, Blood, and Tears
Robert, the Devil
celebrating the life in music of Giacomo Meyerbeer
September 5 at 1pm EST
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.
Meyerbeer enjoyed an enormous vogue in his day, but his reputation, based on his four Paris operas, did not survive long. Yet he exercised a considerable influence on the development of opera by his conception of big character scenes, his dramatic style of vocal writing, and his original sense of orchestration—particularly his novel use of the bass clarinet, the saxophone, and the bassoon. Berlioz came under his influence, and operas such as Verdi’s Don Carlos and Puccini’s Turandot are traced to Meyerbeer not only for their spectacular elements but also for their effective manipulation of ensembles and arias. A number of his operas, most notably L’Africaine, were revived in the 20th century, and a ballet suite, Les Patineurs, based on Le Prophète, was arranged by Constant Lambert.
Robert the Devil
Opera in five acts
Music: Giacomo Meyerbeer
Libretto: Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne
Robert The Devil, French Robert Le Diable, was legendary son of a duke of Normandy, born in answer to prayers addressed to the devil. He uses his immense strength only for crime. Directed by the pope to consult a certain holy hermit, he is delivered from his curse by maintaining absolute silence, feigning madness, taking his food from the mouth of a dog, and provoking ill-treatment from the common people without retaliating. He later serves as the Holy Roman emperor’s court fool but, at the bidding of an angel, three times rides out disguised as an unknown knight to deliver Rome from Saracen attacks. His disguise is pierced by the emperor’s daughter. He refuses her hand in marriage, however, and withdraws to a hermitage.
This is the legend as given in Robert le Diable, a late 12th-century romance; other versions are told in two 14th-century poems, and in the 19th century a distorted version of the legend supplied a libretto for Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Robert le Diable.
Opera Plot Summary
The opera opens with Robert and a group of knights reveling as they ready for a tournament where the prize is the hand of Princess Isabelle. Raimbaut, Robert’s attendant, sings a tale about a princess of Normandy who had a child by a devil after marrying him. Robert is angered by this, revealing himself to be the son in question and sentencing Raimbaut to death. Robert eases his sentence in favor of asserting his right as lord to bed Raimbaut’s fiancée but changes his mind altogether when she is revealed to be Alice, who was raised with Robert as his foster-sister. Alice shares with Robert the news of their mother’s death, her final words a warning of an approaching evil. While she presents their mother’s will, Robert is too upset to read it, and instead sends Alice to deliver a letter to his beloved Isabelle. Before Alice departs, she urges Robert not to trust his strange friend Bertram, though he quickly dismisses this. Shortly thereafter the knights begin to gamble, and Robert, lured into the game by Bertram, ends up losing his money and his suit of armor.
After a joyful meeting with Isabelle, who grants Robert new armor for the tournament, Robert falls once again to temptation at the hands of Bertram. He lures Robert into the nearby forest under the pretense that the Prince of Granada, his chief rival for Isabelle’s hand in marriage, has challenged him to a duel. Because of this, Robert fails to arrive in time for the tournament, thus disqualifying him from entering and winning Isabelle’s hand. Later, in a cave, Bertram confides in spirits from hell while Alice overhears them; she learns that Bertram is the same devil who fathered Robert, and that he has until midnight to make Robert sign away his soul. After discovering Alice, Bertram forces her into swearing her silence on the matter. Robert, lamenting his loss of Isabelle, is easily manipulated by Bertram into his next foul deed: he is to take a magical branch from the tomb of Saint Rosalia within an abandoned cloister, thereby giving him the power needed to claim Isabelle as his own. When they arrive at the cloister, the spirits of the nuns rise from their graves in a ghastly ballet which honors the many vices. Robert resists them long enough to steal the branch and escape.
Using the power of the magic branch, Robert is able to freeze the guards outside Isabelle’s chamber. Before he can follow through on her abduction her pleading bring him back to his senses long enough for him to break the branch. While Isabelle expresses that she still loves him, he is taken away by her guards for using witchcraft. Not long after, Bertram arrives and frees Robert from his captors before revealing to him the truth of their relation to one another. He offers Robert his aid in preventing Isabelle’s marriage to the Prince of Granada on the condition that Robert sign away his soul to Bertram. While Robert initially decides to do so out of devotion to his newly-discovered father, Alice arrives in time to present him with his mother’s will once more. In it, his mother warns not to trust in the man whom she married and lost everything to. While Robert is torn between the conflicting wishes of his parents, the stroke of midnight sounds and so Bertram is dragged back to hell. Now free from the devil’s influence, Robert is free to reunite with Isabelle in the cathedral where she awaits him, dressed in bridal gown, to the joy of all present.
Source: opera wire