24 Sep 2006

HALÉVY: La Juive

For a period of close to half a century, French grand opera, as exemplified by the works of Giacomo Meyerbeer and his school, was the preferred form of music for the theatre (i.e. opera) in most of the civilized world.

These works started off with a big bang in 1828, when Auber’s La Muette de Portici was premiered in Paris. It was followed in rapid fire order by Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (Paris, 1829), and Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable (Paris, 1831). The latter was the most successful of these, and caught up with the Rossini in number of performances at the Opera within a few years of its premiere There was a brief hiatus when Auber’s Gustave III (Paris, 1833) did not achieve the success of the previous works, but in 1835 the triumph of Halévy’s La juive brought matters back into their proper perspective.

The tenor leads in all these works, as well as the next in the series : Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (Paris, 1836) were created by one of the giant figures of the French stage: Adolphe Nourrit, (Montpellier 1802- Naples, 1839).Nourrit was replaced in Paris by Gilbert Louis Duprez (Paris 1806-1896) in 1837 and reigned at the Opéra for close to 10 years, taking over most if not all of Nourrit’s roles and creating quite a few of his own, including works by Auber, Berlioz, Donizetti, Halévy and Verdi.. Halévy never repeated the success of La juive, although La reine de Chypre (Paris, 1841) remained in the repertory for years.

With Huguenots, these early grand operas constitute what is regarded by their fans as the culmination of the efforts to create a distinctive national school in the development of 19th century opera. Detractors, such as Debussy and the antisemitic Vincent d’Indy look at it differently. While writing a review of Les Huguenots in 1903, Debussy referred to these operas as embarrassments, while Vincent d’Indy, completely forgetting the contributions of Auber, Rossini, Verdi, and Donizetti, described this period as the decadent “periode judaique’ that had reigned from 1825-1867.*

It is now possible to hear all of the earlier grand operas (those created by Nourrit between 1828 and 1836) on CD, even the rarely performed Gustave III, since all of these have now been recorded. Unfortunately, this was not done with nearly the same variety of casts as the Italian bel canto operas of the same period. And, as a general rule, the available recordings do not exhibit the same attention to completeness as do the Italian and German works of the middle of the 19th century. This lamentable tendency is particularly well demonstrated by the available recordings of La juive, all of which are cut, some quite badly, and all of which have different cuts. There were two commercial CDs the Carreras on Phillips (with Varady, Anderson and Furlanetto) in 1988 and the Shicoff on an RCA import (with Isokosky, Schorg and Miles) in 2003. The cuts are different, and the Shicoff was issued without a libretto. There also are several “pirate” recordings.

The premiere cast of La juive featured four of the greatest stars in the history of the Paris Opéra: Cornélie Falcon as Rachel, Julie Dorus-Gras as Eudoxie, Adolphe Nourrit as Eléazar, and Nicolas Prosper Levasseur as Brogni.. The work was destined to become one of the cornerstones of the French repertory, being given with great regularity all over the world for about a century. It is one of the grandest of grand operas, with a formal ballet, major choruses, a spectacular procession in Act I, and the most impressive of celebrations in Act III. It culminates with the heroine being thrown into a vat of boiling oil in Act V, in another public “ceremony”.. Gustav Mahler admitted to being absolutely overwhelmed by this wonderful, majestic work”, which he regarded as one of the greatest operas ever created.

La juive did more or less disappear from the repertory during World War II, and only had sporadic performances, many of which involved either Richard Tucker or Tony Poncet, during most of the post war period. It had a very successful revival in Vienna with Neil Shicoff in Oct. 1999, which was repeated during many of the following seasons. Simone Young was the original conductor, Soile Isokoski the Rachel, and Alastair Miles the Cardinal. Several cuts were opened up, including the third verse of Leopold’s serenade which is actually sung by Rachel. This may well have been the first time in many years that this music was performed. But there were some unexpected cuts in music that had been given in many previous performances, especially in the fourth act duet between Eléazar and Brogni. Later performances added another major cut, the cabaletta “Dieu m’eclaire” after Eléazar’s big Act IV aria ”Rachel quand du Seigneur” where he is trying to decide whether he should save his daughter’s life by telling her real father who she is, or whether she belongs to God.

The original opera, as composed by Halévy to Scribe’s libretto takes place at time of the Council of Constance in 1414. When the work opens, the crowd, celebrating a public holiday, is enraged at seeing the jeweler, Eléazar working, and are ready to have him and his daughter, Rachel, burnt at the stake. But the cardinal, who knew Eléazar when they were both in Rome, preaches clemency and saves their lives. Rather than being grateful, Eléazar hates Brogni even more. Leopold then serenades Rachel, and persuades her to see him that evening. The crowd is again ready to throw the jeweler and his daughter into the lake, but this time it is Leopold and the soldiers who save them. The Act ends with a magnificent procession.

In Act II, Passover is celebrated in Eléazar’s house, and Leopold is present. Eudoxie enters, wishing to obtain a magnificent gold chain as a gift for her husband. Left alone with Rachel, Leopold asks her to elope with him, and she agrees. When Eléazar enters, Leopold admits to being Christian, and the old man curses him.

As Act III opens, Rachel asks the princess to permit her to be her servant for one day, and Eudoxie agrees. The scene soon changes to a banquet in a magnificent garden where the guests, including Brogni, Leopold, and the emperor, are entertained by means of a ballet. Eléazar comes in, presents the chain to Eudoxie, who, in turn, gives it to Leopold, referring to him as her husband. Rachel is deeply shocked, and accuses Leopold of the great crime of having had an affair with her. Leopold, Rachel, and Eléazar are all arrested after Brogni curses them.

In Act IV, Eudoxie visits Rachel in prison. She tells her that she can save Leopold’s life by accepting all the blame for herself. Rachel agrees. Then, when Brogni comes to see her, in the hope of saving her life. She tells him she wishes to die, when Brogni has Eleazar brought in. Brogni asks Eleazar to renounce his faith, which would save Rachel.. Eleazar tells Brogni that he wishes to die, but first he wants vengeance on some Christian, that being Brogni. He then tells the Cardinal that when the Neapolitans entered Rome, and his house was set on fire, a Jew saved his daughter, and that he knows that Jew. Brogni begs him to identify the Jew, but Eleazar refuses in the strongest terms. Brogni leaves, after which Eleazar sings his great aria, “Rachel quand du Seigneur”, at the end of which he decides to save his daughter. But when he hears the crowd shouting “Death to the Jews”, he changes his mind and decides that Rachel will die with him.

As Act V opens, Eleazar and Rachel are brought in to their execution. Rachel has exonerated Leopold, but will make no effort to save herself.. Eleazar is again undecided as to what to do about Rachel, and, at the last moment asks her if she wants to live, and to shine in high places. He tells her she would have to be baptized, but neglects to tell her that she is really Brogni’s daughter. Brogni asks him, for the last time, to reveal his daughter’s identity. Eleazar points to her as she dies.

Eleazar is an unbending, vengeful fanatic. While Brogni is willing to forgive and forget whatever had caused their enmity years before the opera starts (this is not made clear in the plot), the jeweler repeatedly turns his back on him, and treats him as cruelly as he can. This is exactly how Shicoff plays Eleazar, and he is to be complimented for that.

I do not know the reason for the cuts, especially those in Act IV, and whether they are due to the great length of the role, or to a desire on the tenor’s part to skip the high C in the cabaletta, after singing for nearly 30 years. Krassimira Stoyanova, a very promising newcomer born in Bulgaria, sings Rachel beautifully. She had also sung another “Falcon” role, that of Valentine in Les Huguenots in NYC for the Opera Orchestra of New York. She has also sung and recorded lighter roles in works such as Il guarany and Fosca, both by Gomes. Walter Fink, who has been a regular in Vienna for years, succeeds in making Brogni a highly sympathetic character, and displays a beautiful rich bass voice.

It has become fashionable in recent years, especially in Central Europe, to make opera plots more relevant to the audience by moving them either to the present or to the recent past. This is the case in the production by Günter Krämer used in Vienna, and since loaned to Israel, Venice, New York, and soon Paris and other cities. This makes a lot of sense for repertory operas that are already very familiar to modern audiences, but may be a two edged sword for long neglected works such as La Juive. In this particular case, I think it was a mistake, especially since the necessary textual changes were not always made. It is a bit disconcerting to see references to events taking place 600 years ago being discussed as being in the present by people in modern dress.

As stated before, La juive is the grandest of grand operas, not only in terms of scenery, but also in terms of musical and dramatic values. The vigor and energy of the final strettas of the first and second acts is overwhelming, as are the passion of the great confrontational duet of the fourth act between Eleazar and Brogni. Unfortunately, the huge cuts in the music, the modernization of the production, and the removal of the usual elements of grand opera such as the ballet and the enormous processions fail to bring out the grandeur of the work. Still, that might have been a little too much to expect—where French grand opera is concerned, we have to be grateful for what little we get, and this Juive is far, far better than no Juive.

Tom Kaufman

* Steven Huebner, French Opera at the Fin de Siècle, pp. 306-308.