The opera year in London has ended with both major companies reviving neglected works: Vaughan Williams's The Pilgrim's Progress at English National Opera and Meyerbeer's Robert le diable at the Royal Opera House. Critical reaction to the former was largely positive, to the latter largely negative, and one has a slight sense that one of those critical mood swings is in progress with ENO on the rise after a long period of very justifiable criticism. The distinction in reaction is not in my view justified, and I'll come back to why at the end of the review.
Much to my surprise, I very much enjoyed the Meyerbeer. First of all there's Laurent Pelly's production. The visual colour and the flexible design is wonderfully refreshing – I have sat through far too many eyesore productions this season. Personally I thought the still life horses and knights for the tournament work beautifully (I slightly wondered if Pelly had seen A Knight's Tale), the mountainside that reverses to become the graveyard is a clever bit of flexible set, and the final tableau of Act III with Purgatory suddenly conjured among the graves was especially striking. For a moment or two in Act IV I could see why some critics had complained about the mobile set, but actually the pay-off of that movement creates an effective final image and you've got to do something because one of Meyerbeer's problems is that he's very bad at endings. I've also seen complaints about, I think, Monty Pythonesque knights, but I think a bit of tongue in cheek around the whole enterprise is no bad thing – god help you if you tried to play the thing entirely straight. Also worthy of mention are the effective video designs of Claudio Cavallari. Away from the visuals Pelly also scores with me by being a director who is not frightened of stillness. One of my bugbears is over-fussy movement, and the inability to create telling relations between people through their physical positioning, and Pelly did a good job in both those departments.
The only area which doesn't work is the choreography of Lionel Hoche. There are two issues with this. The cluttered tomb set for Act III Scene 2 looks good but is rather a minefield for the poor dancers making effective variety of movement near impossible to achieve. Within that limitation I just didn't think that Hoche made his zombie nuns debauched enough, although this is another place where Meyerbeer's limits as a composer are shown up.
The line up of singers in this production has been an ongoing press saga almost since the production was announced, but in fact it all turned out happily. During the first two acts I found myself wishing all the voices were a bit bigger, but in Acts III-V voices seemed to open out more and there was some stunning singing. Bryan Hymel was good in Les Troyens earlier in the year but I thought outstanding here. He was well matched by the late substitute of Patrizia Ciofi as Isabelle. I previously heard here as Gilda in the last Rigoletto revival where she was not ideal, but I was much more impressed here. John Relyea played the villainous Bertram. Relyea was an Edinburgh regular during the McMaster era where he gave a number of impressive performances. I have heard him a couple of times in London since when he hasn't impressed me as much, but tonight I thought he was in superb voice – singing with real authority and character. The final member of the quartet was Maria Poplavskaya. I have been very critical of her on other occasions but in the inside acts there were some very good moments. The duet between her and Relyea in Act III was finely done. I'm afraid overall there remain big question marks about her as a singer because quite simply the voice is not secure enough and too prone to strain but these were less obvious in this performance than on other occasions. The minor roles were all well taken.
In the pit was Daniel Oren, who I don't think I've previously encountered, and I'm afraid is not ideal. As the evening went on I came to the conclusion that he was loving the score too much. He accompanied the singers very sensitively – and the support was just right in the many exposed vocal passages, but elsewhere he needed more oomph and feeling of drama. I also got the impression that he has shortcomings in terms of appropriate guidance to the chorus who often sounded a bit underpowered and hesitant. The Royal Opera House Orchestra were on typically fine form.
And finally there's the question of Meyerbeer himself. Does this performance indicate that he has been justly neglected and indeed should now be buried in a deep dark place where no one will ever find him? It is difficult to make a case for Meyerbeer as a first rank composer, though Robert Letellier has a pretty good try in the programme note. The best of his work comes in the virtuosic material for the soloists and in the small intimate ensembles, although there are no tunes to stick in the mind. Meyerbeer is not much cop as a writer of choruses, and as already mentioned he clearly hadn't really mastered the art of bringing things to a dramatic climax at the end of Acts. But having said all that I didn't find it boring (except in the final trio of Act V which seemed to go on and on). And I think it is historically interesting – in the opening of the fifth Act one can see the seeds which Verdi would transform into something incomparably greater in Don Carlo for example. Judging by Letellier's programme note, Robert le diable is not the most significant of Meyerbeer's operas, and if Covent Garden did revive another, I would go.
This brings us back to where we came in, the ENO/ROH contrast. Personally I would argue that Meyerbeer in opera terms is of much greater historical significance than Vaughan Williams. Neither now stands in the front rank, but personally I was more bored by the Vaughan Williams. Musical standards in both performances were high. What one can in fact see with these two productions is that what has happened with these companies is that the quality gap has narrowed. But overall, this year, it hasn't narrowed as much as some criticism might suggest.