I doubt that the applause at the end of ‘La Juive’ can sound so strong and enthusiastic any place in the world but in Tel Aviv. The last act of this opera recovered from the 19th century repertoire of Grand Opera stages a powerful drama than resonates strongly with the Jewish identity epic. The year is 1414 and the Jew Eleazar and his daughter Rachel are condemned to die because of the forbidden love of Rachel with the Christian prince Leopold. She can save herself if she converts, and her father, a believer Jew asks her whether she is ready to renounce the faith of their ancestors. She refuses and is led to the gallows. The judge and cardinal Brogni asks Eleazar one last secret before he goes to his own death – where is the cardinal’s daughter, lost many years ago when Rome was plundered, and apparently saved by a Jew, is she living? ‘There she is’ Eleazar answers pointing to the flames that are engulfing Rachel’s body and revealing with the last accords of the musical score the hidden secret that triggered the whole tragedy.

source http://www.israel-opera.co.il/

The libretto of the opera belongs to Eugene Scribe, and at its first staging in 1835 ‘La Juive’ sent a strong message against racial and national prejudice in a France that was building a state and a society based on the principles of the French Revolution, but was far from having overcome all its demons, a fact that will be proved by the Dreyfuss case several decades later. It is the best known opera of the 36 composed by Fromental Halevy, a composer who played a big role in the development of the Grand Opera genre. The characters of Eleazar, the rich Jew who faces a hostile society and of his beautiful daughter Rachel who fails for the treacherous prince Leopold are direct descendants from Shakespeare’s Shylock and Jessica. The dilemma of the Middle Ages Jew whose faith puts him in mortal danger, the need to protect his daughter, symbol of Jewish purity and continuity from the temptations of the outer non-Jewish world but especially from the passions of love, even the stereotype of the rich Jew holding the financial power and using it with thirst of revenge, all these remind too strongly ‘The Merchant of Venice’ to be just a coincidence.

Halevy - source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Juive

The Israeli New Opera took over a production of the Zurich Opera directed by David Pountney. The British director renounced the original setting of the opera at the beginning of the 15th century and worked on a concept that places the action in the century and the country where the opera was created – France’s 19th century. The excellent set designed by Robert Israel with a rotating stage with two deep spaces and two frontal panels is fluid and expressive. To enhance the 19th century Grand Opera feeling Pountney brings in the set dancers dressed as Degas ballerinas (another building block of the Grand Opera experience) but also uses some of the anti-Semitic caricatures of Degas to illustrate the atmosphere of prejudice and repression that surrounds the Jewish community and heroes in the opera, as well as hinting to the continuity of racial and religious prejudice in history.

source http://www.israel-opera.co.il/

The concept works pretty well. ‘La Juive’ speaks in an articulated manner to the post-Holocaust audiences, and the moral dilemmas of the heroes resonate well with a mostly Jewish audience in Tel Aviv. However, the music is (and always was) a challenge for the modern representations of such pieces of the genre. ‘La Juive’ has a few remarkable musical moments, and at least two dramatic scenes of high quality that put it on the best place in the world repertoire (the final act I described and the Seder night scene in the second act), but also a lot of flat musical moments, uninspired dancing interludes (which Pountney tried to fill in with grotesque costumes and dancing style) and most than all is very, very, very long – three hours and 45 minutes. Adding this to the fact that the  singers are not best inspired (or at least they were not in yesterday’s performance, with the exception of Jessica Pratt’s Eudoxe, the wife of Leopold the rest were quite mediocre) – the overall experience was mixed. One may still want to catch one of the performances in the next couple of weeks especially for the opportunity of seeing David Oren directing – we missed him yesterday as he was feeling sick, but even directed by his assistant the orchestra sounded better than in most other representations we heard in the last years.

(video source mazzone1)

There is no filmed moment or recording from this performance that I could find on YouTube, so I went looking for some of the available recordings with big performers from the past and present. I found two versions of the beautiful area of Eleazar ‘Rachel, quand du Seigneur’. The first one is part of the last session of recordings of Caruso in Camden 14th September 1920, the second belongs to Roberto Alagna from 1997.

(video source MUEZZAB)

Details of the upcoming performances and distribution can be found at http://www.israel-opera.co.il/Eng/?CategoryID=337&ArticleID=705.