Magazine article Opera Canada

Carl Morey Greets the Operatic Return of Two French Ladies with Mixed Emotions

Magazine article Opera Canada

Carl Morey Greets the Operatic Return of Two French Ladies with Mixed Emotions

Article excerpt

RACHEL, THE HEROINE OF LA JUIVE (THE JEWESS) TOOK the stage at the Opera de Paris this spring for the first time in more than 70 years, and Louise, the heroine of the opera that bears her name, for the first time ever.

La Juive was last heard at the Opera in the 1933-34 season shortly after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Reportedly, a subscriber was heard to say at one of those performances, "Hitler would be pretty pleased tonight if he had seen Eleazar [her father] and Rachel thrown into the boiler--the whole score should have gone along with them." I have to say that I am much of the same opinion.

La Juive was first performed in 1835 and was frequently performed and greatly admired throughout the 19th century. It pops up regularly in opera histories as one of the first and greatest of French Grand Operas, but it virtually disappeared after the 1930s until recently. In the past few years, it has been exhumed in Vienna, New York, London (in concert), Lithuania and now Paris. The score has flashes of originality and often novel orchestration, though on the whole I think it best left in the history books. But what really bothered me was the work's anti-Semitism.

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My view of the opera puts me decidedly in the minority. The composer, Fromental Halevy, was a Jew, as is Neil Shicoff, the American tenor who has rounded off a long career with his performances as the Jewish jeweller, Eleazar. The Paris and London performances were conducted by the Israeli conductor, Daniel Oren. I read many times about how the opera has contemporary significance in its portrayals of intransigent adherence to religious views and the confrontation of two religious fanatics in the characters of Eleazar and Cardinal Brogni. This seems to me to be a willful misreading of the plain text.

The chorus of blood-thirsty Christians is either praising God or baying for the blood of the Jews. In any confrontation between Eleazar and Brogni, the Cardinal always has the upper hand. Even before the opera begins, Brogni, in an earlier job in Rome, has executed Eleazar's sons for heresy. In fact, the only fault for which Eleazar and Rachel are made to suffer is that they are committed Jews. The opera begins with the city Provost condemning them to death because Eleazar is working on a Christian holiday. And at the end, father and daughter are offered their lives if they will be baptized as Christians. Fanatical? Eleazar doesn't stand a chance against the Christians. I fail to see fanaticism in the choosing to remain committed to a faith, even to death. Admittedly this brings the opera to a tragic conclusion with the deaths of Rachel and Eleazar, but in a final twist among many in the course of the work, it turns out that the real tragedy is that the Christians are burning up one of their own: Rachel is not a Jew after all, but the long-lost Christian daughter of Brogni. To see La Juive as a Jewish tragedy is to construe the ending as Jewish penchant for martyrdom.

The Opera gave its best for this foolish piece. Shicoff is now frayed of voice, but he is obviously deeply committed to the role of Eleazar and delivered the big moments with sensitivity and style. Anna Caterina Antonacci was a fine Rachel, but the unquestioned vocal star of the production was Annick Massis as the Princess Eudoxie. A massive industrial scaffolding designed by George Tsypin loomed over the stage for most of the evening. …

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