Patrizia Saves Robert; Bodyguard, Caesar: London Stage

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Photographer: Bill Cooper/ROH via Bloomberg

Patrizia Ciofi (Isabelle) and Bryan Hymel (Robert) in "Robert le Diable" by Meyerbeer at the Royal Opera House in London. Ciofi, a last-minute replacement, stepped into Laurent Pelly’s new production on opening night without previously having had a rehearsal.

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Photographer: Bill Cooper/ROH via Bloomberg

Patrizia Ciofi (Isabelle) and Bryan Hymel (Robert) in "Robert le Diable" by Meyerbeer at the Royal Opera House in London. Ciofi, a last-minute replacement, stepped into Laurent Pelly’s new production on opening night without previously having had a rehearsal. Close

Patrizia Ciofi (Isabelle) and Bryan Hymel (Robert) in "Robert le Diable" by Meyerbeer at the Royal Opera House in... Read More

Photographer: Bill Cooper/ROH via Bloomberg

The ballet of dead nuns in "Robert le Diable" by Meyerbeer at the Royal Opera House in London. The devil summons a group of lascivious nuns from their graves to tempt the hero Robert, and to help him seize a magical branch which will give him power to rape his fiancee. Choreographed by Lionel Hoche. Close

The ballet of dead nuns in "Robert le Diable" by Meyerbeer at the Royal Opera House in London. The devil summons a... Read More

Photographer: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera via Bloomberg

"Robert le Diable" at the Royal Opera House in London. Meyebeer’s grand opera of 1831 was last seen at the Royal Opera in 1890. Close

"Robert le Diable" at the Royal Opera House in London. Meyebeer’s grand opera of 1831 was last seen at the Royal Opera in 1890.

Photographer: Bill Cooper/Source Royal Opera via Bloomberg

John Relyea as Bertram in "Robert le Diable" at the Royal Opera House in London. The Royal Opera’s new staging is directed by Laurent Pelly and designed by Chantal Thomas. Close

John Relyea as Bertram in "Robert le Diable" at the Royal Opera House in London. The Royal Opera’s new staging is... Read More

Photographer: Helen Maybanks/Donmar Warehouse via Bloomberg

A scene from the all-female "Julius Caesar" directed by Phyllida Lloyd at the Donmar Warehouse in London. The play stars Frances Barber as Julius Caesar. Close

A scene from the all-female "Julius Caesar" directed by Phyllida Lloyd at the Donmar Warehouse in London. The play... Read More

Photographer: Helen Maybanks/Donmar via Bloomberg

"Julius Caesar" by Shakespeare gets an all-female cast in a version directed by Phyllida Lloyd at the Donmar Warehouse. Charlotte Josephine is Lucius and Harriet Walter is Brutus. Close

"Julius Caesar" by Shakespeare gets an all-female cast in a version directed by Phyllida Lloyd at the Donmar... Read More

Photographer: Paul Coltas/Premier PR via Bloomberg

Heather Headley in "The Bodyguard" at the Adelphi Theatre. The show ends with the number "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." Close

Heather Headley in "The Bodyguard" at the Adelphi Theatre. The show ends with the number "I Wanna Dance With Somebody."

Photographer: Paul Coltas/Premier PR via Bloomberg

Heather Headley and Lloyd Owen in "The Bodyguard" at the Adelphi Theatre in London. Bodyguard Frank Farmer takes a bullet for his client, glamorous diva Rachel Marron, during an Academy Award ceremony. Close

Heather Headley and Lloyd Owen in "The Bodyguard" at the Adelphi Theatre in London. Bodyguard Frank Farmer takes a... Read More

Photographer: Paul Coltas/Premier PR via Bloomberg

Lloyd Owen in "The Bodyguard." The stage musical is based on the film of the same name starring Whitney Houston. Close

Lloyd Owen in "The Bodyguard." The stage musical is based on the film of the same name starring Whitney Houston.

Rumor says that a curse clings to Meyerbeer’s supernatural opera “Robert le diable” (Robert the devil, 1831). Looks like it’s more than a rumor.

Soprano Marina Poplavskaya abandoned the Royal Opera’s new production, then Diana Damrau (in another leading role) pulled out at a late stage because of pregnancy. The opera hadn’t been staged at Covent Garden since 1890, so finding replacements under the age of 150 was tricky.

Poplavskaya returned to rehearsals after a few days, and young American Jennifer Rowley replaced Damrau. She struggled, and was ditched at the last moment. The next replacement, Patrizia Ciofi, bravely stepped in for opening night without a rehearsal. In opera, that’s about as scary as it gets.

The curse was lifted. Ciofi did a wonderful job as Isabelle, and deserved her applause and shouts. Whirling roulades of dizzy coloratura flew out of her, and her top notes seemed to get higher and higher. She was charming in her role as a medieval princess who tries to reform her dissolute lover.

If there were a few problems with the projection of her lower notes, no-one cared. She’d saved the day.

And what of the rest of the opera? Was there a good reason it hadn’t been seen in 122 years?

Devil Dad

I must confess a secret fondness for this long piece about Robert, a flighty young duke who discovers that his father is the devil. There are terrific arias, a great final good-vs.-evil trio, and a ballet of scary dead nuns. There are also stretches of uninspired rum-ti-tum during its four-and-a-half hours.

Director Laurent Pelly doesn’t quite overcome the difficulties. The sets, using a mix of medieval and 19th-century imagery, don’t achieve the necessary grandeur. Some of the colors are garish. A lively jousting tournament is presented as a static scene, which seems silly.

The ballet sequence is better. The cropped-haired zombie nuns in shrouds, squirming and panting with desire, create an amusing gothic frisson.

Tenor Bryan Hymel (Robert) has a gorgeous, clarinet-like sound. Bass-baritone John Relyea is an entertainingly boomy devil. If Marina Poplavskaya (Alice) wobbles in her long phrases occasionally, she also has a haunting intensity in the big moments. Daniel Oren keeps it beautifully focused in the pit.

Opera buffs who don’t fancy waiting 122 years for the next production should certainly try to catch it. Rating: ***.

Female Caesar

All-male versions of “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III” are playing in London. The Royal Shakespeare Company recently staged an all-black “Julius Caesar.” So why shouldn’t we have an all-female “Julius Caesar”?

Phyllida Lloyd sets her Donmar production in a women’s prison. Caesar (Frances Barber) is the loutish top dog who bullies the other prisoners.

Brutus (Dame Harriet Walter with her hair slicked back) is the friend who turns against her with the help of Cassius (Jenny Jules). They kill Caesar by making her drink bleach.

Walter, dressed in gray prison sweatpants with a trench coat on top, is a superb Brutus. Jenny Jules is a memorable Cassius too, hotheaded and flighty.

Lloyd’s staging does its best to hinder things. The prison setting makes for a limiting concept which has less and less to do with these Romans and their concerns.

A newly written opening scene, in which Caesar reads her horoscope from a cheap magazine and cracks jokes about her love life, is pretty grisly too. Frances Barber doesn’t transcend the difficulties of the concept, and gives a shouty, unfocused performance as Caesar.

When Brutus, Cassius and Mark Antony (a powerful turn from Cush Jumbo) deliver their heart-stirring speeches, it still manages to fire up. For a moment, ancient Rome, via Elizabethan England, comes to life once more. Rating: ****.

‘The Bodyguard’

A bodyguard selflessly takes a bullet for his superstar client. Nobody is likely to do the same for any potshots aimed at the musical “The Bodyguard.”

The new stage show, based on the 1992 movie starring Whitney Houston, is going to need all the bullet-proof protection it can get. The plot, performances and direction have holes enough in them already.

When pop diva Rachel Marron (Heather Headley) starts receiving threatening letters from a stalker, her team hires tough security guard Frank Farmer (Lloyd Owen). She snarls at him, like the puffed-up diva that she is. He’s the strong silent type, and grunts back at her in manly monosyllables.

Giggly Lover

Within minutes, they’ve fallen in love. Rachel instantly stops being a harridan and goes all giggly and gooey. He still doesn’t say much. You’d get more passion by putting wigs on two broom handles and jiggling them about.

Rachel’s sister (Debbie Kurup) is a wannabe chanteuse, and her character gets the bulk of the numbers not delivered by her superstar diva sibling. The titular bodyguard merely croons a short and deliberately flat version of “I Will Always Love You” in a karaoke bar, then gets back to his flinty silence.

Even the stalker (Mark Letheren) gets more to sing -- which doesn’t seem very fair.

Thea Sharrock’s direction doesn’t help. The musical numbers enter with a clunking change of dramatic gear.

The one redeeming feature is Heather Headley’s big flexible voice. She doesn’t try to imitate Whitney Houston, and makes her own mark with the ballads and disco numbers. Rating: **.

“Robert le diable” is in repertoire at the Royal Opera. http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000

“Julius Caesar” is at the Donmar Warehouse. http://www.donmarwarehouse.com or +44-844-8717624

“The Bodyguard” is at the Adelphi Theatre. http://www.thebodyguardmusical.com or +44-844-579-0094

What the Stars Mean:
*****     Excellent
****      Very good
***       Average
**        Mediocre
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham on history and Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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