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 HalÈvy’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 OpÈra 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, HalÈvy and Verdi.. HalÈvy
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
The premiere cast of La juive featured four of the greatest stars in the
history of the Paris OpÈra: CornÈlie Falcon as Rachel, Julie Dorus-Gras as
Eudoxie, Adolphe Nourrit as ElÈazar, 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 ElÈazar and Brogni. Later
performances added another major cut, the cabaletta “Dieu
m’eclaire” after ElÈazar’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 HalÈvy 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,
ElÈazar working, and are ready to have him and his daughter, Rachel, burnt at
the stake. But the cardinal, who knew ElÈazar when they were both in Rome,
preaches clemency and saves their lives. Rather than being grateful, ElÈazar
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 ElÈazar’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 ElÈazar 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. ElÈazar 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 ElÈazar 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
G¸nter Kr‰mer 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
* Steven Huebner, French Opera
at the Fin de SiËcle, pp. 306-308.
image_description=Fromental HalÈvy: La Juive
product_title=Fromental HalÈvy: La Juive
product_by=Neil Shicoff, Krassimira Stoyanova, Simina Ivan, Walter Fink, Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Vjekoslav äutej (cond.). Production: G¸nter Kr‰mer
product_id=DG 073 400-1 [2DVDs]