Opera Scotland

Robert le Diable Robert the Devil

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Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Vogelsdorf, nr Berlin, 5 September 1791; died Paris, 2 May 1864).


Eugène Scribe & Germain Delavigne.


Scenario by Germain Delavigne.



First Performance: Paris (Opéra), 21 November 1831.

First Performance in UK: London (Drury Lane), 20 February 1832.

First Performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Theatre Royal), 1 February 1855.

Scottish Opera première: N/A.



Meyerbeer, moved from Germany to Italy after seeing his early operas premiered in Berlin, Munich and Stuttgart. He then had a successful Italian career, completing half a dozen operas, in which he used Rossini as a model. These included the now unknown Emma di Resburgo (Emma from Roxburgh, Venice 1819) and culminated in a most successful grand historical pageanr Il crociato in Egitto (The Egyptian Crusade, Venice 1824), one of the last operas to be composed for a castrato in the leading role. Having achieved all he could in Italy, he moved to Paris, in time to be hugely influenced by the success at the Paris Opéra of Auber's La muette de Portici (1828), followed by Rossini's Guillaume Tell (1829). He therefore ditched the revisions he had prepared of his Italian works and did something entirely new. His own first work for the Opéra, Robert le diable, was an astounding success, which established the reputation both of the composer and of that opera institution. His works dominated its repertoire for the next thirty years. Méphistophélès, in Gounod's Faust, one of the iconic roles of French opera, could probably not have been created without the gleeful sense of enjoyment of evil evinced by Bertram in Robert.

The  enthusiasm for the Gothic style of fiction, beginning with Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764) and leading on through classics by 'Monk' Lewis, Mrs Radcliffe and others, and wittily satirized by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, relied on strange and macabre events in picturesque medieval situations. The features of Robert le diable, with its devilish machinations, innocent heroines, and ballets of ghostly nuns, fit neatly into this pattern, though they make it very difficult to stomach today. Nevertheless, there have been two major revivals in recent years - in 1968 at Florence (in Italian) with Renata Scotto, Giorgio Merighi and Boris Christoff, and then in 1985 at the Paris Opéra with June Anderson, Alain Vanzo and Samuel Ramey. The Royal Opera gave it a whirl at Covent Garden in late 2012 in a co-production with other major houses, and that staging was taped for release on DVD.

The ballet sequence undoubtedly had a seminal influence on the development of dance, as a result of which we can now enjoy the ghostly activities of various Sylphs, Wilis and Bayadères. Perhaps the opera's most lasting claim to fame is that a rather unusual and attractive rose of the gallica type, first bred at that period, and with pinky mauve flowers, was named after it.


Main Characters

Robert, Duke of Normandy (tenor)

Bertram, Robert's father, the devil (bass)

Raimbault, a troubadour (baritone)

Isabelle, Princess of Sicily (soprano)

Alice, Robert's half-sister (soprano)


Plot Summary

This medieval concoction is set in Sicily, which was ruled by the Hauteville dynasty, who left Normandy and moved south at around the same time that William the Conqueror moved north. Duke Robert has been banished from Normandy because of his devilish activities in which he is encouraged by Bertram, who is (though Robert does not know this) Robert's father.

In the opening chorus, Raimbault tells the soldiers the legend of Robert's mother, Countess Berthe, and her notorious lifestyle, consorting with demons. Robert orders Raimbault's arrest, but relents when his half-sister Alice arrives, since she is engaged to Raimbault. On his arrival in Sicily, Robert has fallen for Isabelle, who loves him in return. She is due to present the prizes at a jousting tournament at which Robert is scheduled to compete. But goaded by Bertram, he gets caught up in a gambling session and loses his armour. Isabelle presents him with a replacement set. However Bertram gives his son further distractions, as a result of which he misses the tournament and is further dishonoured. Isabelle is then betrothed to a different prince.

Bertram tempts Raimbault with a quantity of gold so that he leaves before his rendezvous with Alice. When she arrives she is terrified by the vision of Bertram emerging from a cavern from which she has heard hellish voices - Bertram has been attending an orgy of demons in anticipation  of the expected entry of Robert to membership. She is told to keep quiet about it. Never having trusted Bertram, she runs away when Robert arrives for his meeting with him. Bertram now persuades him to steal a magic branch, which will grant his wishes, from the tomb of Saint Rosalia. At the ruined cloister by the tomb, Bertram summons the shades of deceased nuns (who have broken their vows) to give courage to Robert in his theft. When Robert arrives, the nuns dance round him and help him on his way.

Using the magic branch, Robert plans to abduct Isabelle. He lulls the courtiers to sleep, gains access to Isabelle's quarters. and wakes her. But she begs for mercy, and persuades him to break the branch and destroy its power, whereupon he is attacked by the wakening courtiers, and is only saved by the arrival of Bertram.

Robert tries to persuade Bertram to join him in taking shelter in the cathedral at Palermo. Bertram is not keen, and continues his attempts to obtain his son's soul. But his powers are overcome by the distant sound of the chanting monks. Alice tells Robert that Isabelle is waiting to marry him. As midnight strikes, Bertram's power is finally destroyed, and he goes down to hell. The double wedding, of Robert to Isabelle and Alice to Raimbault, is duly celebrated.

The Cast

 foster-sister of Robert
 the Unknown
 Princess of Sicily
 a minstrel
 Duke of Normandy

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