This opera was a sensation when first performed in the 1830 and remained popular for decades. However, it is hardly ever performed any more, even though the late Romantics took over a lot of the rather sensational techniquies which Meyerbeer introduced. This is maybe due to the rather confused romantic story (Norman night searches for love in Sicily, gets torn between the good (his “milk-sister” and his bride versus his companion/father, who turns out to be the devil), or the Wagneresque length (5 acts spanning 4 ½ hours), or the nearly impossible sound acts nearly all singers have to perform. But it is a laudable enterprise by the Royal Opera House (co-producing with Geneva) to put this on. It is absolutely worth hearing, even if the impressions remain mixed.
The production which starts out thrillingly in a stylized, caricature-reminiscent manner changes into a more Romantic-realistic setting at mid-point. This is a pity, since the beginning with dozens of armored nights singing and moving in a medieval break-dance fashion, the tournament pictured by very colourful plastic horses, all this feels right and the only way such an opera libretto can be put on stage. But later on it turns into a traditional “Freischütz” production, where the stylization gets lost.
The singing is formidable. The very short-term replacement Patrizia Ciofi as Isabelle sings all the way through in an angelic voice, pianissimoing the ridiculously high passages with clarity, musicality and certainty; a little less impressive, but still excelling, is Marina Poplyvskaya as the good Alice, Robert’s foster sister and the bringer of virtue and his dying mother’s love. Both ladies are sensational. Also excellent is John Releyea as the devilish friend/father of Robert’s who manages to portray his own schizophrenia between his mephistophelic nature and the love for his son in convincing manner. Robert himself, sung by Bryan Hymel, does a decent job in a very difficult role, who tends to scream when he needs to hit the high registers (he should have taken heed of Isabelle’s technique).
The – for the time necessary – ballet scene is impressively staged by zombie nuns, rising from the graveyeard, who eventually seduce Robert into securing world power (inspiration for Wagner’s Ring?).
All in all this was a super-interesting, sometimes thrilling, opera performance with an impossible story and an inconsistent production, unable to maintain the high promise of the first two acts. Good playing by the orchestra made this a very positive event.