Small picture of Donizetti

 

 

 

Halévy's La Juive

Production by the Lithuanian National Opera,  Vilnius, April 23, 2005

Photographs by Mikhail Rashkovskiy courtesy of the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet

Despite the resurgence of hitherto neglected operatic genres, such as baroque and bel canto, the core works of grand opéra remain rooted to the margins, struggling to overcome the problems of varying editions, the sheer size and quality of the resources needed, the fatuousness, even by opera standards, of its plots and the often threadbare characterisation and motivation.

Halévy’s La Juive (1835) has its share of all these but there are qualities that shine through despite the unpromising format and it retained its place in the repertoire up to the Second World War.  While the music is not outstandingly memorable, it is all well crafted, melodic, inventively orchestrated and has several effective set pieces, of which the best known is Eléazar’s “Rachel, quand du Seigneur”.   However, post war, it has had almost no productions, almost certainly on account of the terrible history and the memories that the subject raises. Any treatment is bound to go beyond mere operatic considerations and impinge on the political; even to wheel out a traditional staging would be to make a statement.

Günter Krämer has risen to this challenge, with not just one but two quite different productions in the space of 5 years, the first, with Gottfried Pilz as designer, in Vienna in 1999, revived both there and in New York and Tel Aviv and a second, which he designed himself, in Vilnius and Warsaw in 2004.  The first production received wide attention and a fair amount of criticism, particularly in New York. There is a DVD (Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, V.Sutej, DG 00440 073 4001).  The second production, the main subject here, has received rather less comment.

Krämer’s reasons for a second go can only be guessed at but one might surmise that he wanted to get back to the idea of  “La Juive”, whereas the opera has tended to be seen primarily as a tenor opera, partly from the change of emphasis in the ending from Rachel accepting Christianity to her rejecting it and thus giving Eléazar his revenge and the last word, but also historically from Nourrit’s active participation in its creation, Caruso’s enthusiastic endorsement and, recently, Neil Shicoff’s championing of it.   No doubt he also wanted to improve on some of the less successful aspects of the first production.  There Pilz’s design with a large ramp, rising from near stage level on the left to quite a height on the right and taking up the whole rear of the stage, meant that events on the stage proper were pushed to the front or under the high end of the ramp and sometimes looked very cramped. Some people were also confused by the somewhat complicated staging of the ending. 

While the settings for both productions were uncompromisingly modern, the Vienna one was more stylised and symbolic in its approach, whereas Vilnius was more straightforwardly realistic, within the confines of the setting.  The processions and ballets, unnecessarily added at great expense (some 150,000 francs with horses and tailor-made metal armour) to satisfy its first Paris audience, were omitted or reduced to a short walkabout and the opera slimmed down to a much more intimate drama.

The plot, set in 15th century  Switzerland, is a typical example of a Scribe libretto with actions driven forward by a neatly fitting series of events, once judgement on their credibility is suspended.  Eléazar, a Jew, finds a baby, Rachel, in the ruins of  de Brogni’s house in Rome after it had been sacked.  Some years later, Rachel, brought up as Eléazar’s daughter, strikes up a relationship with Léopold, the Emperor’s son, who has managed to fit it in between defeating the Hussites.  He is disguised as a Jew and, unknown to her, is not only already married but is a Christian and hence forbidden to have relations with a Jew.  She ends up denouncing him to his family and de Brogni, now a Cardinal.  De Brogni pronounces the death sentence on the pair and on Eléazar.   During his interrogation, Eléazar hints that de Brogni’s daughter is still alive but despite de Brogni’s pleading will give him no further information. Rachel eventually exonerates Léopold so that only she and Eléazar are sent to their death and as she dies, in a vat of boiling oil, Eléazar triumphantly tells de Brogni that he has just executed his own daughter.

However, this farrago contains many powerful and moving confrontations and reflections and there is a depth to some of the characters. In particular, Eléazar is a complex figure, not just a victim of cruel intolerance but an unyielding fanatic in his own right.  His offer to Rachel to save her own life by converting to Christianity is hardly an honest one as he fails to give her the full background of her birth.  Halévy, himself a Jew, was also happy to include the stereotype of Eléazar relishing the money he gains from selling a chain to Eudoxie, Léopold’s wife.

The Vilnius setting used a white backcloth and a raked translucent stage which was lit from below for some scenes (see below for photographs) giving some stark and memorable images.  A set of Venetian blinds, sometimes closed and sometimes open enabling us to see scenes behind their bars, was used to divide the front from the back of the stage and raised completely to give full use of the whole stage when needed.  Costumes and props were largely monochrome except for the Cardinal’s red.

 At the start, a group of Jews was shown praying in front of the closed blinds, on which were written names of Holocaust victims but looking from a distance like bricks in a wall. Their prayers were interrupted by groups of thugs who beat them in a series of static snapshots between which the theatre went completely dark.  These scenes were repeated about six times, perhaps once or twice too many as the audience became a little restless as the point had been made.

The freer layout of the Vilnius production made for better crowd scenes in Act 1 where they twice attempt to punish Eléazar and Rachel, firstly for not observing a saint’s day and then for sheltering in the cathedral porch. However, even at some 100 or more, the crowd was too few for the size of stage to give a truly claustrophobic and oppressive feeling.  The Passover Seder scene also benefited from its greater prominence centre stage.

Krämer included a nice line in gentle humour as Léopold and his family awaited the arrival of the Cardinal and Emperor, with Léopold trying to get some sleep on three chairs pushed together while his bored children misbehaved, the boy tapping on the wine glasses along with the music.  This homely scene rapidly turned savage, with the crowd looking on like some huge black vulture, as Rachel denounces Léopold, a Christian, for seducing her, a Jew, overtly sexually sitting astride him.  The Cardinal pronounces the death sentence on them and Eléazar.   Their interrogation has them brought in hooded and in chains, an all too familiar image for us today.

Scribe was very fond of some spectacular final coup de théâtre and La Juive, with Rachel being boiled alive was no exception. Donizetti, newly arrived in Paris but with around 20 years of Italian theatre experience was amazed by what he saw, “too much reality – the final scene too horrifying, the more horrifying because of so much illusion” (H. Weinstock, Donizetti, London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1964, p. 108).   Here, Eléazar and Rachel were meticulously prepared for death being strapped into electric chairs and the lights gantry lowered as the switch was thrown.  There was a chilling horror about it but it really needed a slicker coordination of lighting and actions.    Krämer also had de Brogni dragged away, no longer in command of events, as the law and the mob took over, which rather alters the Scribe/Halévy view.

The performance under  Martynas Staskus brought a more lyrical feel to the music than had happened in the Vienna, which had a far more edgy feel, driven by the sheer force of Shicoff as Eléazar.  Shicoff’s ghost took some time to shake off, as one expected the French tenor Thomas Morris to attempt to emulate it whereas Krämer had a much different Eléazar in mind, a petulant, fawning character flinging chairs about in his frustration and impotence, his power residing only in his one secret that he can only bring himself to exercise at the end.  Morris, with a rather nasal tone perhaps not that different from that of the role's creator, Nourrit, offered a convincing alternative reading, although handicapped by not looking much older than his daughter.

The singing of chorus and soloists was of a high level, even if the French was a bit woolly at times.  Joana Gedmintaite was a moving and impetuous Rachel, more proactive than in the Vienna one, Regina Silinskaite a haughty and patronizing Eudoxie brought near to collapse by the turn of events and Edmundas Seilius did his best with the rather sketchy and unpromising Léopold.  Vladimiras Prudnikovas’s bass was occasionally unsteady and the switch from de Brogni’s early sympathetic stance to his later unreasoning persecutor was not altogether successful, perhaps, ultimately Scribe’s fault for attempting to weld together such disparate traits.

All round an excellent production, rather broader in its sympathies than Krämer’s Vienna effort, which was so comprehensively dominated by possibly an over fervent Shicoff.   Unfortunately no recording it likely to be made of this production but, despite Max Loppert’s dismissal in May Opera magazine, the DVD of the Vienna performance is worth consideration by anyone interested in this era or in how such an unwieldy beast as grand opéra can be made a moving dramatic experience today.  Both Krämer’s efforts have been honest and thoughtful attempts to do this but the price has been the removal of many of the elements that made it grand opéra in the first place, except for its engagement with the political.   

 

 Photographs by Mikhail Rashkovskiy

courtesy of the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet

 

La Juive

Eleazar (Viktor Aleskov) and  Rachel (Joana Gedmintaitel) threatened by the mob

 

La Juive

Eleazar (Viktor Aleskov) and Rachel (Joana Gedmintaite) at the Passover Seder.  The names of Holocaust victims can be seen on the wall behind.

 

La Juive 3

Rachel (Joana Gedmintaite) denounces Leopold (Edmundas Seilius) with Eleazar (Viktor Aleskov), de Brogni (Vladimiras Prudnikovas), Ruggiero (Arunas Malikenas) and Eudoxie (Regina Silinskaite)

 

La Juive 4

Eudoxie (Regina Silinskaite) with Leopold prostrate before de Brogni (Vladimiras Prudnikovas)

 

Eleazar (Thomas Morris) and Rachel (Joana Gedmintaite) meet their deaths

 

The Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet theatre is a rather austere and cavernous, Soviet era, building, but with excellent sight lines and acoustics (apparently some audio enhancement) from the balcony seats.  A well produced and informative program in Lithuanian and English as well as a libretto was available.   It is a venue well worth trying, if you feel like a visit to Vilnius, a very pleasant and relaxed city.

Theatre at Vilnius

 

 

 

Page initially published in  2005