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September 28, 2006

Halévy's Hit - Fromental Halévy's La Juive performed in concert by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House at the Barbican Hall

Posted by David Conway

Fromental Halévy's La Juive
Music by Fromental Halévy, libretto by Eugène Scribe
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
conducted by Daniel Oren
Barbican Hall
21st September 2006

It is scarcely two years since I threatened to write one day about Fromental Halévy's opera La Juive in the Social Affairs Unit review, and now Covent Garden has kindly given me the opportunity to fulfil this prophecy with its splendid concert performances given at the Barbican, apparently the first given by the Royal Opera in over a hundred years.

This opera holds an important place in cultural history; but not for the reason, usually put forward, that it forms some sort of landmark in the history of minority relations. Although the plot at its most superficial level deals with the persecution of the Jew Eléazar and his supposed daughter Rachel, any connection between the Jews of La Juive and those in either the real world or in history must be regarded as purely coincidental.

These characters, like all of the creations of the librettist Eugène Scribe, the giant of the French stage during the bourgeois monarchy of Louis-Phillipe, exist in a parallel universe, in which colourful historical or geographical milieus, sometimes vaguely corresponding to those of planet Earth, display a handful of characters who, as a consequence of some secret manoeuvrings in their own pasts and coincidences in the present, are forced to face some implausible crisis of choice or conscience, preferably accompanied by a simultaneous natural disaster or similar stage spectacle - in the concert performance we alas had to imagine the cauldrons of boiling water into which the heroine flings herself at its climax.

La Juive, first performed in 1835, comes in fact at the tail-end of romanticism's interest in Jews as heroes, which had begun with Lessing's Nathan the Wise and perhaps reached its peak in Byron's Hebrew Melodies of 1815. As Adrian Mourby points out in a perceptive programme note, when Jews:

moved in next door and started inviting people to their daughters' piano recitals,[...the mantle of romantic heroism moved to gipsies, who] were also exotic. But they had remained in their place, which was on the outside of society.
Amongst those who were to capitalise on this sea-change was Halévy's nephew Ludovic, the librettist of Carmen, whose composer Bizet had been Fromental's star pupil at the Conservatoire.

The fact that the composer of the music to La Juive was himself a Jew has encouraged many to make exaggerated claims about the significance of its plot, relating it to current and later forms of Jew-hatred, and presenting Halévy and Scribe as liberal crusaders against prejudice. But a reading of the libretto - and, even more so, a sub-titled concert performance, giving prominence to the words themselves - makes it clear that it conforms closely to the crudest prejudices about Jewish love of money, hatred of Christians and general implacability.

The representation of a Passover meal, supposed by those who should know better to contain elements of Jewish religious practice and melody, shows Eléazar motivated purely by spite and secrecy, and his exaltation at the prospect of a financial coup by selling jewellery to the Princesse Eudoxie shows him to be a descendant of Shylock, not of Lessing's Nathan. One must therefore dismiss the idea that Halévy in writing this score was motivated, as one scholar writes, to "deal with serious social issues", and treat the whole thing as it was intended, as high-class hokum with a good dash of fashionable anti-clericalism in its portrayal of an inflexible Church.

It is interesting to note when reading the contemporary reviews of the opera's première, that not a single critic even mentions the composer's Jewish origins, none related the plight of Eléazar to contemporary French Jews, and the main issue between periodicals of the right and the left was the work's perceived indictment of Catholicism.

Indeed Halévy's own career, and that of his family, were testaments that there was not in the France of his time, a "Jewish question". Born and brought up in a poor, orthodox Jewish family, he was still, as a French citizen, eligible to study on the basis of his ability, regardless of confession, at the Paris Conservatoire. His solid abilities, if short of genius, earned him positions as a teacher at the Conservatoire, as répétiteur at the Opéra, and jobbing composer; so it was an unexpected bounty for him to receive, on the basis of Buggins's turn, Scribe's libretto, originally intended for Meyerbeer (who was too occupied with his plans for Les Huguenots, which became the successor blockbuster to La Juive - Meyerbeer's wealth meant he could afford to take his time).

What impressed contemporaries, above all else, in La Juive, was the stage spectacle which it provided, which was to become the benchmark of all future grand operas. Berlioz wrote of:

The unprecedented luxury of the scenery and costumes, and the incredible din of the staging […] In spite of the clanking of all that armour, the neighing of horses, the tumult of the crowd, the volleys of bells and cannons, the dances, the laden tables and fountains of wine [and] the anti-musical fracas of the Académie Royale de Musique [the official title of the Opéra theatre] […] one could still catch in mid-flight some of the composer’s inspiration.
With the energetic and committed conducting of Daniel Elon, and a roster of first-class principals, at the Barbican performance, we were able to sample that inspiration at its true worth. We also had the unusual opportunity, (which outweighed in all the loss of balance) of having the orchestra to the fore. Halévy employed a large orchestra and the latest technology - this is the first stage-work to employ valved horns in the orchestra, enabling a greater range of notes and modulations in the brass, a factor of which the composer made great use. There is also an organ (almost de rigueur in grand opera since Meyerbeer introduced one in Robert le diable). Indeed the opera opens to the sound of organ and church choir - a coup remembered by Wagner at the start of Die Meistersinger.

And there are moments when Halévy most successfully seizes the moment. Rachel's first act aria, the nervous and mysterious Il va venir, was marvellously conveyed by Marina Poplavskaya, a member of Covent Garden's "Young Artists Programme" but on the evidence she gave throughout the evening already world-class and surely destined for greatness. Dennis O'Neil was a suitably irascible but powerful Eléazar. This role was originally conceived by Halévy for a bass; but the charismatic tenor Adolphe Nourrit saw its potential and successfully persuaded the composer to change.

It was also Nourrit who had the innovative idea to end Act IV, not with a sensation but a soliloquy; the result was the opera's most famous air Rachel, quand du seigneur - with its chromatic inflections, perhaps the most "Jewish" music in the opera. O'Neil sang it for all it was worth - and that is quite a lot. (By the way, Eléazar's first appearance in the action is prefaced by the off-stage sound of his hammering in his workshop, interrupting the activities of others on stage - another anticipation of Meistersinger). Alastair Miles as Cardinal Brogni was not perhaps quite on top of the eloquent first act aria Si la rigueur, but proved a redoubtable antagonist to Eléazar and would-be protector to Rachel (who is, unknown to Brogni until the final moments, his daughter) in the opera's closing scenes. So intense is the storyline involving these three that the roles of Prince Leopold (Dario Schmuck) and Princess Eudoxie (Nicole Cabell) are inevitably overshadowed - indeed the Prince, who is supposed to be a military hero, shows so much indecisiveness in his amours between Eudoxie and Rachel, and behaves with such general pusillanimity, that a modern audience can only have the grossest contempt for him - but their fine singing was nonetheless a treat.

It is a pity indeed that after these trial runs Covent Garden is not to go ahead with an actual staging (although Elon is to conduct a revival next year in Paris in a production by Pierre Audi and designs by George Tsypin, who was also responsible for the St. Petersburg Ring cycle).

From a chat I had the next day with the Royal Opera's Musical Director, Antonio Pappano, I understand the Opera intends to preface each future year's season with a concert performance of a neglected work which it would not otherwise have an opportunity of putting on stage. I made the most eloquent plea that I could for Meyerbeer's Le prophète, which I do not think has been heard in this country in living memory. M. Pappano certainly agreed that the Opera would be unlikely to pay for a production, involving as it would a cathedral demolished by an explosion, so Prophète qualifies on that score. Do drop him a line if you agree with me that it would be a worthy resuscitation.

Of Halévy's decline after the success of La Juive I wrote in my earlier article. A contemporary admirer wrote in 1841, in an essay he later suppressed:

[Halévy’s] creative impulse certainly stemmed from grand opera; the force of his personality and of the mixed blood that flows in his veins directed him straight away to the large arena and brought him immediate victory there. Unfortunately it happened too soon: he seemed to be a man without a past, and it was in order to make this good that he subsequently returned to the cradle of French music [ i.e. opéra comique].
The writer was Richard Wagner: clearly he learned from the example of Halévy techniques, not only of opera, but of career management.

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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