Seen and Heard Opera Review
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.
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