When the opera La Juive (The Jewess) was premiered in Paris in 1835, it was immediately embraced by the public and became one of the most popular French operas of the nineteenth century. Its music was beautiful and its story highly dramatic. Yet, how could an anti-Catholic drama of great intensity that also was keenly sympathetic to Jews achieve such acceptance in a predominantly Catholic, largely antisemitic society?
Diana Hallman has written an excellent answer to that question. Her study is well-researched, is thorough in its scope, and reads like a novel.
The story of the opera takes place in Constance, Switzerland, in 1414 and reflects indirectly actual historical events. The protagonists of the opera are its hero, Eléazar (a wealthy Jew), Rachel (his adopted daughter), Cardinal Brogni (responsible in the past for the creel deaths of Eléazar's family through a Christian-inspired slaughter), and Léopold (prince of the Empire, faithless husband, and, in disguise as the Jew Samuel, the wooer of Rachel). Although Brogni attempts in his own narrow way to be nice to Eléazar (whom he does not recognize as his former victim), the latter defiantly continues to hate Brogni and his Church and seeks revenge. He gets it through Rachel, born a Christian as Brogni's child, whom Eléazar rescues as an infant and raises as a Jewess. When it is discovered that Léopold (Samuel) is not Jewish and is married, Brogni seeks to punish all in one way or another. Rachel sacrifices herself to save Léopold. Only as she dies does Eléazar reveal to Brogni her true identity.
The opera was written by Eugène Scribe, the most famous librettist in Europe at the time and a liberal Christian, and Fromental Halévy, an up-and-coming young opera composer and a Jew. Hallman gives us a clear picture of both, their interactions, and what they were attempting to accomplish. The composer came from a distinguished Jewish family; his father, Elie, came to Paris from the Jewish center in Metz and quickly distinguished himself for his efforts to help Jews enter post-Revolutionary French society. Always sympathetic to his father's views and his own upbringing, Halévy, and to a lesser extent also his younger brother Leon, a prolific writer and Saint-Simonian, softened some of Scribe's harshest scenes and pointed out to Scribe where he was "insensitive." Hallman gives us some of the variant versions of scenarios, scenes and texts that were eliminated from the final version of the opera, many because Scribe lacked a Jewish perspective. She also shows us how Halévy interpreted specific texts and thereby characters through his musical setting. …