Bertram (Robert le diable) in Copenhagen, or: Antipathy for the devil

Activity: Talk or presentation typesLecture and oral contribution

Jens Hesselager - Lecturer

In 1833, Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable received its Danish premiere in a translated and adapted version with spoken dialogue, Robert af Normandiet. Tumult and controversy accompanied this event: an influential clique, opposed to opera in general, sought to turn public opinion against the work, but others just as enthusiastically greeted it. The opera was allowed a second run, and eventually it established itself as a successful work, receiving fifty Danish performances in the course of the nineteenth century. At some point, as performance materials reveal – probably in the 1840s – a second version replaced the first one, restoring Meyerbeer’s recitatives to the work.

In the early, spoken-dialogue version, the character of Bertram, Robert’s diabolic father, posed a special problem. Holstein, the theatre director, was reluctant to allow for a character representing the powers of Hell to appear onstage in Copenhagen, deeming it likely that audiences would react negatively. The translator, Thomas Overskou, was therefore asked to tone down the diabolic aspects of Bertram’s personality, emphasising that his actions were motivated by fatherly love. He sought to achieve this, principally, by adding a spoken monologue at the beginning of Act 3.

But he did not thereby prevent the character of Bertram (and the work as a whole) from being perceived by some as a problematic, and an unsympathetic, aesthetical invention – for instance by influential Danish critics such as Adam Oehlenschläger and Johan Ludvig Heiberg. Part of the problem, for these critics, had to do with the very idea of a character being portrayed as sympathetic (morally legitimate) and evil (diabolic) at the same time. This was an idea which Oehlenschläger associated with the all too modern aesthetics of Victor Hugo (of which he did not approve at all), and an idea which Heiberg simply rejected as dramaturgically nonsensical, and which furnished him with yet another occasion to voice his general antipathy for the genre.

In view of these (and other) contemporary Danish critiques of grand opera in general and Robert af Normandiet in particular, this paper will focus on the character of Bertram in the Danish adaptation of the work, performed in the 1830s by Giovanni Battista Cetti, and later (from 1841) by Peter Schram.
12 Dec 2014

Event (Conference)

TitleNineteenth Century Grand Opera Outside Paris
LocationIKK, University of Copenhagen

ID: 129023933