Isabelle sings this beautiful floating aria in Act 4, when Robert comes into her chambers to abduct her. By this point, Robert has lost just about all his worldly possessions and his honor, and is flirting with unholy magical powers. Isabelle pleads with Robert to spare her, reminding him of the love she has for him. A more complete synopsis is found on the Meyerbeer Fan Club website.
Some background. Robert le Diable was Meyerbeer’s first overwhelmingly popular splash in the opera world. The first performance took place in Paris, November of 1831, and the opera hit 100 performance by April of 1834 (Kaufman, 1984). Not bad! Meyerbeer was, for a period of time, as well-known as (and maybe even more popular than) his contemporary Rossini. Robert le Diable is no longer performed as frequently, but it’s popped up a few times over the past 20 years. I hope the popularity tide continues to turn.
Back in the day, Isabelle’s part was not considered the prime female role of the opera, but it has been my introduction to Meyerbeer’s work. I was originally drawn to the beautiful longing in the orchestra and the alternating stretch of the “chorus” and accelerando in the “verse.” The range is C4-C6, with plenty of visits to my difficult friends E5-A5.
For your listening pleasure, and so you really know what I’m talking about: here is a recording by Beverly Sills, and here is June Anderson’s performance. Thoughts on which rendition you like better? I have adopted Sills’ high C6 in the final chorus before the cadenza. It is Isabelle’s defiant, desperate cry, perfectly expressed by the M7 interval leap from D5 to C6 – it gives me the chills and thrills!Robert, toi que j’aime et qui reçus ma fois, tu vois mon effroi! Robert, you who I love and who received my time, you see my fear! Grace, grace pour toi même, et grace pour moi! Grace pour toi! Mercy, mercy for yourself, and mercy for me! Mercy for yourself! Quoi? ton coeur, se dégage des sermens les plus doux? What? your heart breaks the sweetest oaths? Tu me rendis hommage, je suis à tes genoux, à tes genoux! You showed me favor, I am at your knees, at your knees! Grace, grace pour toi même, et grace pour moi! Grace pour toi! Mercy, mercy for yourself, and mercy for me! Mercy for yourself! O mon bien, mon bien suprême, toi que j’aime, tu vois mon effroi! O my dear, my most dear, you who I love, you see my fear! Grace, grace pour toi même, et grace pour moi! Mercy, mercy for yourself, and mercy for me!
The challenge. This aria is not considered a standard offering at auditions and competitions, but I’m glad to have it on my rep list. The music provides plenty of opportunity for a singer to demonstrate long line and breath control, but I think the biggest challenge is imbuing each phrase with character and expression. The aria has three distinct sections of verse and chorus. The text becomes quite repetitive, which means it is even more imperative that each line is sung with intention and meaning. Otherwise, this seven-minute long aria becomes a draaaaaaag.
My interpretation (the plan so far). The aria starts with a loving Isabelle sweetly telling Robert that she is afraid. The rise and fall of the melody is soothing and gentle, as if she is weaving a calm spell over the crazed Robert. She asks for mercy, but she is still in control of herself and the situation at-hand. When Robert sings “No, no, no,” Isabelle’s calm cracks for the first time, and uncertainty creeps into her tone.
The ascending melody opening the second verse is an expression of Isabelle’s rising fear. She appeals to Robert’s sense of honor, asking if his heart will break the promise he’s made. She casts herself in a vulnerable, submissive role at Robert’s feet, in the hopes that Robert will not harm the woman he has such tender feelings for. When Robert denies her a second time, Isabelle looses her confidence and her nerve. Her soft cries float through the air, gliding and swooping until she ends the second chorus with a dying sob.
By the third verse, Isabelle knows she is running out of options and time. She frantically reminds Robert that he is her most beloved. The rocking melody from the first verse weaves into the ascending line from the second verse. Her voice rises in a chromatic pattern as her hysteria builds. She is desperate, begging for her life – the M7 leap in Sills’ version takes place – and pleading with Robert to spare her and to save himself.
Whew, what a ride. I hope to do Isabelle justice.