* 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
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,"
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.
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
"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)