The Music Criticism of Hugo Wolf

By Henry Pleasants; Hugo Wolf | Go to book overview
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19. La Juive

May 25, 1884

We are accustomed to being taken unawares by a performance of La Juive, since such a performance is usually announced by the red playbill. If the red pirate flag is hoisted at the Court Opera, instead of the usual white flag of truce, it means a raid on the repertoire. La Juive, Faust and Der Freischütz customarily take turns in sharing the honor of venturing forth under the red flag from the harbor of the archives into the hazardous sea of the stage, where their task is to prove their viability as stopgaps as best they can. They fail often enough, and then they have a bad time of it. In such a ticklish situation, of course, one cries out: "Help, Samiel!" But Samiel | the wild huntsman of Der Freischütz | is a knavish fellow. He smirks, and thinks to himself: "God helps those who help themselves." This might well be taken to heart by the Jewess, who in her hour of need appeals directly to her divinity, the cruel god of the Jews, and reckons it both seemly and opportune to have the bloodthirsty Jehovah and her sincere faith on the tip of her tongue, expecting miracles of both. Gounod's Faust makes a shrewd calculation: "If heaven abandons me, then hell is not to be despised." Mephistopheles and Samiel, however, are brothers under the skin, and similarly given to cynical quotation. Mephistopheles recites, perhaps unctuously, "Who places his trust in God has built on a firm foundation," makes a merry face, and thinks to himself: "The devil will get you yet."

You see, neither heaven nor hell, nor god nor devil, nor magic bullet nor any faith, however sincere, is of any use to these poor condemned wretches. A well prepared orchestra, a good cast, intelligent staging -- these constitute the Solomonic key that could bar the hellish brood of trivial routine and thoroughly inartistic procedure. (The régisseur of a court theater threw a tantrum during a rehearsal of Mefislofele because the key in question, which he seems to have envisioned as having a huge bit and handle, and which he intended to have swung in such a manner as to impress some concierge in the fourth gallery, was not immediately at hand.) But now to the business of the day.

Signora Turolla, the extension of whose guest engagement leaves her as the sole surviving and also the most agreeable holdover from the stagione, sang Rachel in La Juive with much warmth, sensitive insight and dedication. Especially beautiful was the Romanza of the second act, in which the mood is extraordinarily well sustained by the composer. It is no easy matter to sing this scene in such a way as to bring home to the listener the conflict raging within

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