Devilish Extravagance: Meyerbeer's 'Robert le Diable'

The opera is based on a legendary character who is, literally, a "half-devil."   His mother prayed to God to conceive a child. When she got no results, she expanded her appeal to include Satan, and gave birth to Robert -- the devil's own son.

As ACT ONE begins, the notorious Robert has been exiled to Sicily for his numerous crimes, and has fallen in love with the Princess Isabella. His father has accompanied him, in disguise. He's calling himself Bertram, and nobody -- including Robert -- knows who he really is.

Robert meets Raimbaut, a minstrel who is engaged to Alice. She's Robert's mortal half-sister -- and she's also extremely pious. Alice urges Robert to repent, but he refuses.

Robert hopes to compete in a tournament, to win Isabella's hand. But on his way he stops to gamble, with Bertram's encouragement. Before long, Robert has lost everything -- including his armor, without which he can't even enter the tournament, much less win it.

In ACT TWO, Robert and Isabella meet at the royal court and declare their love. Isabella is so determined to marry Robert that she even gives him a new set of armor. But Bertram deceives Robert, and leads him into a forest, and away from the tournament. When the competition concludes, Isabella expresses her bitter disappointment that Robert never even showed up to fight for her.

In ACT THREE, Bertram joins an orgy of evil spirits. Robert's pious half-sister Alice is watching, and learns the truth about Bertram's relationship to Robert. She also learns that Bertram will lose Robert forever unless he is able to win him over completely before midnight. But in a duet, Bertram threatens Alice, and makes her promise not to reveal anything she's heard.

Bertram then summons a group of defrocked nuns from their graves. Along with Bertram, they lead Robert to a magical cypress branch, which he can use to get anything he wants -- including Isabella -- and the two sing the brilliant duet, "Il est sur le tombeau." At first, Robert is hesitant to use this evil magic. But the nuns tempt him with offers of drink and love. He then claims the branch, and when he's surrounded by demons, he waves it in front of him and clears a path to safety.

In ACT FOUR, using the power of the branch, Robert overcomes Isabella's guards and enters her rooms. He admits to her that he has succumbed to devilish powers, and pleads with her not to reject him. He's about to carry Isabella away by force when she pleads with him to repent, in the aria "Robert, toi que j'aime." Moved, Robert suddenly snaps the cypress branch. Its power is broken, Isabella's guards come back to life, and Robert is captured.

ACT FIVE takes place outside a cathedral, where Isabel is to marry the Prince of Granada. Bertram has rescued Robert, but still has only until midnight to win him over to the cause of evil. He tries to force Robert to sign a contract, yielding his soul, but when monks are heard singing in the cathedral, Robert hesitates. Alice then intervenes, invoking divine assistance, and revealing that Isabella's marriage to the Prince has been delayed. Robert hesitates, and when the clock strikes 12, Bertram is revealed as the devil, and disappears into the earth.