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Halévy, La Juive:  the Royal Opera in concert at the Barbican, Soloists, the Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Daniel Oren 19.09.2006.  (JPr) 



During that infamous September lecture in Regensburg, Germany, the Pope quoted a conversation that took place in Ankara in 1391 between Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on Christianity and Islam. Pope Benedict XVI later said that controversial speech had been ‘misunderstood’ but it was all too late because parts of the world had gone insane. The World seems now a crazy place full of religious fanatics and political correctness. Into this melting pot we can throw Jacques Halévy’s 1835 ‘grand opera’ La Juive whose leading character, Eléazar, is often called the ‘Shylock of opera’ and that contains a number of lines (in Kenneth Chalmer‘s translation) such as ‘What a joy to know I will be paid in gold, what a pleasure to swindle Christians’, the people singing ‘Throw the wicked race into the lake’, and their concluding ‘We are avenged on the Jews’. Despite Richard Wagner’s ridiculous statement (as reported by Cosima) about this work being ‘Not at all Jewish’, indeed anti-Semitism is rampant throughout, and it is a populist work, albeit by a Jewish composer, to suit the times it was written in. Fortunately I am not a zealot (although I have a Jewish heritage) and saw no need to take my revenge on the Barbican for putting this opera on!


I doubt really we were presented on 19 September with the ‘real’ La Juive which is in five acts combining high drama, huge set pieces, and bravura music, everything in fact that is the Romantic era’s version of High Definition TV! The cost of mounting such a spectacle would be exorbitant – though probably small by West End musical standards.


Halévy (1799–1862) studied with Cherubini at the Paris Conservatory and when 20 won the coveted student honour, the ‘Prix de Rome’. He was immediately taken on as a professor, and taught composition, harmony and counterpoint for several years to students such as Gounod, Massé, Saint-Saëns, Lecocq, as well as, Bizet, who after Halévy’s death married one of his daughters. Despite his heavy academic workload, Halévy managed to compose nearly forty lyric works for the stage, although most of them were light operas, ten were in this French ‘grand opera’ style.


Eléazar, the Jewish goldsmith, more than justifies his epithet of the ‘Shylock of opera’. He is intelligent, combative, though venal, hungry to make more money, rigid and vengeful – ‘happy’ also to send his (adopted) daughter to her death in a (melting) pot of boiling oil. He offends the populace by working on a public holiday with his anvil hammering out shrill dissonant sounds that are in stark contrast to voices of the Christian chorus. However he exposes the hypocrisy of his Christian persecutors and, as a character, like Shylock, neither is he simple, or generally sympathetic.


So La Juive (The Jewess) was written by a Jewish composer, on a Jewish subject, though it is probably going a bit far to call it a Jewish opera. The story, by Eugene Scribe, indulges in blatant anti-Semitic stereotypes even as it tells a story that ultimately allows some sympathy for its Jewish characters. The setting is Konstanz in 1414, and unknown to Rachel, the Jewess, she is actually the daughter of a powerful Catholic cleric, Cardinal Brogni. Eléazar, who has been persecuted before by Brogni, has raised Rachel as his own daughter and, of course, as a Jew. Rachel, is romanced by a Christian prince (Léopold) posing as a Jew (Samuel) but worse, he is already married to Princess Eudoxie, As the opera reaches its dramatic denouement, Eléazar gets his revenge on Brogni and allows Rachel to plunge to her death before triumphantly exposing the truth (‘La voilà!’) that would have saved her life: that she was, really, Brogni’s long-lost daughter and a Christian. La Juive precedes, of course, Il Trovatore but Verdi must have known it well. It was one of Gustav Mahler’s favourites and perhaps he wished himself, because of all his travails, into the persona of the vengeful Jew?


It is not surprising this work fell out of favour for a very long time; it was of its time and has been at the mercy of changing religious sensibilities and historical events, as well as the public’s need for opera that is not quite so superficial.


In its uncut length of over five hours, the plot, which meanders through its five acts, is therefore typically complicated (they don’t write them like that any more!), reassuringly packed with some familiar operatic business that is the musical equivalent of painting by numbers. Even within recent weeks it was hinted that we would have an evening around four hours long, but in the end there was about three hours of music.


Nevertheless however ‘rum-titti-tum’ it might be at times La Juive also has some stunning musical inventions. As in all similar grand operas there are often telling contrasts between moments of big public declamations (employing a well-trained, hard-working and enhanced Royal Opera chorus) and moments of more intense or intimate private anguish which put the five soloists centre stage. There was very little solo singing in what was left (presumably?) of Act I and it began and ended with stunning displays of choral singing. Act II was left almost entirely to the soloists, exploring the complex personal relationships between Eléazar, Rachel, the deceitful lover ‘Samuel’ and his guileless cuckolded wife, Princess Eudoxie. In a much shortened final three acts this clear separation between happenings either ‘public’ or ‘private’ remains but is not so clear cut. Some of the finer later scenes (such as the gruesome final minutes) combine with telling effect the individual personal tragedies against a compelling choral backdrop. Am I alone in hearing towards the end of the opera in the woodwind and pizzicato strings the strains of Klezmer music? What was that about ‘Not at all Jewish’?

It is clear that all the five principal roles were written with those who would essay the parts at the Paris Opéra in 1835 firmly in Halévy’s composing mind. The roles now present tremendous vocal challenges. Princess Eudoxie requires a coloratura soprano and ‘Samuel’ (Léopold) needs a light tenor with a secure top. Both would be at home in something written by Donizetti. The bell-like voice of the bubbly Royal Opera debutant, Nicole Cabell, excelled as Eudoxie and Dario Schmuck did not disappoint in his cruel high-lying role. Both had sufficient heft to project over a consistently noisy orchestra in the ensemble scenes.

The bass, Matthew Rose, who sang and went as the army sergeant, and the baritone Joachim Siepp (Ruggiero, the city provost) both had resonant and attention-grabbing voices. Cardinal Brogni, written for the great bass Nicolas Levasseur, is more than just a crusty old, anally-retentive, curmudgeonly old religious figure because of his obsession for the truth about his lost daughter. Towards the end of the opera it needs him to soften up and exhibit a wider range of emotions than you would expect from such an outwardly ‘stock’ character. This bravura part was extravagantly sung by Alastair Miles who exhibited splendid low notes so cavernous that I expected him to emerge after the interval in pot-holing garb!

Rachel is another soprano role but needs one with more chest voice. She has many reflective and touching moments, particularly her Act II Romance, which, like many of the solo numbers, is accompanied by some delicate woodwind and brass solos. (Here she was assisted by two guitarists who incidentally might have left the stage less noisily immediately it was finished!) Rachel here was the disturbingly gaunt, almost spectral, figure of Marina Poplavskaya (one of the Jette Parker Young Artists). She certainly inhabited her character well but sang her top notes with her chin on her chest and seemed to be singing more to herself than her audience.

However, there is little doubt that in the end the starring role is Eléazar, written for (and in the case of the Act IV aria, revised by) Paris’s 1830’s star-tenor Adolphe Nourrit. Nourrit longed for a more complex part than he was usually given and Halévy provided him with a role that goes all the way from quiet religious devotion to outbursts of defiant anger at the persecution he suffers along with his daughter. The aria which ends Act IV ‘Rachel, quand du Seigneur’ seemed the climax of the entire work. The veteran Dennis O’Neill was a little ill-at-ease until this point, to be honest he looked as though he was sight-reading his way through the evening, but all can be forgiven for such an illustration of paternal love and distress. So different does this aria seem from what (musically) we hear before (and after) that it indeed might be the inspiration of another composer.

Eléazar should be the star but on this evening that is what the Israeli conductor, Daniel Oren, wanted to be. The Royal Opera Orchestra was on top form and he drove them relentlessly on through the high and low moments either jumping with both feet often off the ground or squatting down. Regardless of how visible he was it was clear that he was trusted by his musicians and singers and the solo moments, quartets and choruses made for an interesting evening. Would we want to sit through a complete version, though? 

Jim Pritchard




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