Patrizia Saves Robert; Bodyguard, Caesar: London Stage

'Robert le Diable'
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. Photographer: Bill Cooper/ROH via Bloomberg

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. or +44-20-7304-4000

“Julius Caesar” is at the Donmar Warehouse. or +44-844-8717624

“The Bodyguard” is at the Adelphi Theatre. 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.)

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