What the devil? Royal Opera stages Meyerbeer rarity

* Meyerbeer's opera "Robert le Diable" gets rare outing

* First staging at Royal Opera for 122 years

* French director made last-minute casting change

LONDON, Dec 6 (Reuters) - The audience at London's Royal

Opera House is in for a big surprise on Thursday night.

They will witness German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer's 1831

grand opera "Robert le Diable" (Robert the Devil), a work so

rarely performed that virtually no one has seen it, let alone

sung it or played it.

In fact, the last time Britain's prestigious Royal Opera

House put on the epic work was in 1890, by which time it had

fallen out of favour, never to recover fully.

"I think the piece still works today," said Laurent Pelly,

the French director with the Herculean task of staging a work

that turned Meyerbeer into a superstar when it premiered in

Paris nearly two centuries ago.

"I hope they will be taken by the story and the music and

the singers," he told Reuters backstage on the eve of opening

night. "It's a huge piece."

The chorus is 80-strong, there are 10 dancers, and the

principal singers face roles among the most demanding in opera.

Adding to the stress was a last-minute casting change for

the key role of Isabelle, which was to have been performed by

American soprano Jennifer Rowley in her Royal Opera debut until

she was replaced less than a week before the premiere.

"It was a musical problem," Pelly explained. "We were doing

five weeks and in the end it was not possible to do, so it was

very important to find somebody else," he added, speaking in

English.

Italian Patrizia Ciofi was brought in with the advantage

that she had worked with Pelly before and, crucially, was one of

the few sopranos who had previously performed Robert le Diable.

"Three days is very short of course, but I know Patrizia,"

Pelly said.

Ciofi will sing the first four performances (Dec. 6, 9, 12

and 15) and Russian soprano Sofia Fomina will take over for the

final two shows on Dec. 18 and 21.

PARIS TRIUMPH

When Meyerbeer started work on Robert le Diable, he set out

to create a hit. Pelly likens the opera to a Hollywood

blockbuster, light on subtlety but rich in action, special

effects, stirring music and melodrama.

Set in the times of knights, jousting and chivalry, the

story follows Robert's quest for the hand of Isabelle and his

dangerous dance with the devil, and contains the once notorious

scene of nuns' ghosts dancing provocatively by their tombs.

The effect on audiences in 1831 was sensational. They fell

in love with the opera, which quickly became a favourite around

the world and was deemed a masterpiece by Frederic Chopin.

Degas captured it in paint and, according to Pelly, its

influences can be traced to popular works by composers including

Bizet, Offenbach and Gounod.

Why it had fallen from grace by the 20th century is not

clear.

"During the 19th century a lot of composers were inspired by

Robert le Diable and by Meyerbeer, and 60 or 70 years after it

seemed very old fashioned, there were too many performances and

everybody knew it," said Pelly.

"I think the opera-goer wanted to forget it."

Other factors included the expense of staging such a large

work, the emerging talents of Wagner and Verdi and its running

time of over four hours. Except for Sunday's matinee, there are,

unusually, plenty of tickets left on the Royal Opera website.

Some experts link its decline to Wagner, who was heavily

influenced by Meyerbeer early on but turned on the composer and

sought to disassociate himself from him.

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White)