La Juive

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La Juive (pronounced French pronunciation: ​[la ʒɥiv]) (The Jewess)[1] is a grand opera in five acts by Fromental Halévy to an original French libretto by Eugène Scribe; it was first performed at the Opéra, Paris, on 23 February 1835.

Composition history[edit]

La Juive was one of the most popular and admired operas of the 19th century. Its libretto was the work of Eugène Scribe, one of the most prolific dramatic authors of the time. Scribe was writing to the tastes of the Opéra de Paris, where the work was first performed – a work in five acts presenting spectacular situations (here the Council of Constance of 1414), which would allow a flamboyant staging in a setting which brought out a dramatic situation which was also underlined by a powerful historical subject. In addition to this, there could be choral interludes, ballet and scenic effects which took advantage of the entire range of possibilities available at the Paris Opera.

Because of the story of an impossible love between a Christian man and a Jewish woman, the work has been seen by some as a plea for religious tolerance, in much the same spirit as Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots which premiered in 1836, a year after La Juive, as well as the 1819 novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott which deals with the same theme. At the time of composition, the July Monarchy had liberalised religious practices in France. Meyerbeer and Halévy were both Jewish and storylines dealing with topics of tolerance were common in their operas. However, reviews of the initial performances show that journalists of the period responded to the liberalism and to the perceived anti-clericalism of Scribe's text, rather than to any specifically Jewish theme.[2]

The libretto of La Juive is considered by some to have a goal of reconsidering the status of Jews in French society. However a closer examination of the text - with its clichéd portrayal of the Jew Eléazar as secretive, vengeful and materialistic - does not convincingly bear out this interpretation.[3]

Performance History[edit]

Cornélie Falcon as Rachel (1835).
Portrait by A. Colin.

The opera's first, ornate production, costing 150,000 francs, was conducted by François Habeneck. The performances of the soprano Cornélie Falcon in the title role and the dramatic tenor Adolphe Nourrit as Eléazar were particularly noticed. Nourrit had significant influence on the opera: Eléazar, originally conceived as a bass part, was rewritten for him, and it appears that it was largely his idea to end act 4, not with a traditional ensemble, but with the aria "Rachel, quand du seigneur" for which he may also have suggested the text. The production was notable for its lavishness, including the on-stage organ in Act I, the enormous supporting cast, and the unprecedentedly elaborate decor. Richard Wagner, who admired La Juive, may have 'borrowed' from it the act 1 organ effect, for his 1868 opera Die Meistersinger. Moreover, Eléazar's tapping at his goldsmith's work is echoed by Hans Sachs's cobbling during Meistersinger.

La Juive enjoyed an international success comparable to that of Meyerbeer's grand operas. It made its American premiere at the Théâtre d'Orléans in New Orleans on 13 February 1844. The work was also used for the inaugural performance at the newly constructed Palais Garnier in Paris on 5 January 1875 (the title role was sung by Gabrielle Krauss). The opera was produced by New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1919 as a vehicle for its star tenor, Enrico Caruso. Eléazar was the last role Caruso sang prior to his untimely death in 1921. Giovanni Martinelli succeeded Caruso in the role at the Met, and both he and Caruso recorded extracts from the opera. These are available on CD reissues.

The opera was programmed regularly until the 1930s. Modern revivals have been staged at the Vienna State Opera (1999), The Metropolitan Opera (2003), La Fenice in Venice (2005), the Paris Opera (2007), the Zurich Opera House (2007), the Staatstheater Stuttgart (2008) and De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam (2009) and the Tel Aviv (Israel) Opera. In Zurich and Tel Aviv the action was changed from the 15th century to late 19th century France when anti-Semitism was rampant during the Dreyfus affair. In addition, the Royal Opera, London presented concert performances at The Barbican in 2006, with Dennis O'Neill and Marina Poplavskaya singing the roles of Eléazar and Rachel.

Roles[edit]

Role Voice type Premiere Cast, 23 February 1835
(conductor: François Habeneck)
Eléazar, a Jewish goldsmith tenor Adolphe Nourrit
Rachel, his supposed daughter, the "Jewess" of the title soprano Cornélie Falcon
Prince Léopold tenor Marcelin Lafont
Princess Eudoxie, niece of the emperor soprano Julie Dorus-Gras
Gian Francesco, Cardinal of Brogni, President of the Council bass Nicolas Levasseur
Ruggiero, city provost baritone Henri-Bernard Dabadie
Albert, a sergeant bass Ferdinand Prévôt
A herald baritone Prosper Dérivis
First drinker tenor Jean-Étienne-Auguste Massol
Second drinker bass
Officer tenor Trévaux
Majordomo baritone Hens
Executioner baritone
Emperor Sigismund Silent

Synopsis[edit]

The synopsis below reflects the original version of the opera. Modern performing versions often somewhat adapt this storyline for convenience.

Place: Constance
Time: 1414
Events before the opera begins

The following is a summary of events which took place before the first act of the opera, some of which are only revealed in the course of the action.

When he was young, the Jew Eléazar had lived in Italy near Rome and witnessed the condemnation and executions of his sons as heretics by Count Brogni. Eléazar himself was banished and forced to flee to Switzerland.

During his journey, Eléazar found a baby near death, abandoned inside a burnt-out house which turned out to be the home of the Count. Bandits had set fire to the house, attempting to kill the entire family of Brogni but unaware that the Count himself was in Rome at the time.

Eléazar took the child, a girl, and raised her as his own daughter, naming her Rachel. Brogni discovered the ruins of his house and the bodies of his family upon his return. He subsequently became a priest and later a cardinal.

At the beginning of the opera, in 1414 Rachel (now a young woman) is living with her "father" in the city of Constance. The forces of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund have defeated the Hussites, in battles where Prince Leopold has distinguished himself. The Council of Constance, convened by Antipope John XXIII, has been arranged to resolve Church matters. John XXIII is represented there by Cardinal Gian Francesco Brogni, who was a historical personage. His part in the story of the opera is, however, entirely fictional.

Act 1 of the original 1835 production, design by Charles Séchan, Léon Feuchère, Jules Dieterle, and Edouard Desplechin

Act 1[edit]

A square in the city of Constance in 1414

Eléazar is a goldsmith. The crowd condemns him for working during a day dedicated to Church festivities. He is saved from a lynching by the arrival of Brogni, who in the process recognises Eléazar as his old adversary.

Léopold arrives in disguise as a young Jewish artist Samuel. Rachel is in love with Samuel and knows nothing of his true identity. Local laws reflect prejudice against the Jews: if a Jew and a Christian have sexual relations, the Christian is excommunicated and the Jew is killed. Léopold is thus taking a great risk in this affair, especially as he is already married to the Princess Eudoxie. The crowd returns to attack Eléazar, but 'Samuel' secretly instructs his troops to calm things down. The act closes with a grand triumphal procession.

Act 2[edit]

Inside the house of Éléazar

Rachel has invited Léopold for the Passover celebration in Eléazar's house. He is present while Eléazar and the other Jews sing their Passover prayers. Rachel becomes anxious when she notices that Léopold refuses to eat the piece of unleavened bread that she has given him. He reveals to her that he is a Christian, without telling her his true identity. Rachel is horrified and reminds him of the terrible consequences of such a relationship.

Eudoxie enters - at which Léopold hides - to order from Eléazar a valuable jewel for a present for her husband.

After Eudoxie leaves, Léopold promises to take Rachel away with him. She tries to resist, worrying about abandoning her father, but as she is about to succumb to his advances, they are confronted by Eléazar, who curses Léopold before the latter runs off.

Act 3[edit]

Magnificent gardens

Rachel, who has followed 'Samuel' to the Palace, offers her services as a lady's maid to Eudoxie. Eléazar arrives at the palace to deliver the jewel. He and Rachel recognise Léopold as 'Samuel'. Rachel declares that Leopold seduced her before the assembly and she, Eléazar and Léopold are arrested and placed in prison, on the instructions of Brogni.

Act 4[edit]

A gothic interior

Eudoxie asks to see Rachel in prison, and persuades her to withdraw her allegations. Rachel agrees; Brogni agrees to commute Léopold's sentence, and to spare Rachel and Eléazar if they convert. Eléazar at first answers that he would rather die, but then makes plans to avenge himself. He reminds the Cardinal of the fire in his house near Rome many years before and tells the Cardinal that his infant daughter did not die. He says that she was saved by a Jew and that only he knows who he is. If he dies, his secret will die with him. Brogni begs him to tell him where his daughter is, but in vain. Eléazar sings of the vengeance that he will have in dying, but he suddenly remembers that he will be responsible for the death of Rachel. The only way to save her is to admit that the Cardinal is her father and that she is not Jewish but Christian. The act ends with the opera's most famous aria, Eléazar's 'Rachel, quand du Seigneur'. At the point where he has almost persuaded himself to concede, he hears the people shouting for his death and resolves that he will never give Rachel back to the Christians.

Design for Act 5 of the original 1835 production

Act 5[edit]

A large tent supported by Gothic columns

Eléazar and Rachel are brought to the gallows where they will be thrown in a cauldron of boiling water. Rachel is terrified. Eléazar explains that she can be saved if she converts to Christianity. She refuses and climbs to the gallows before him. As the people are singing various prayers, Brogni asks Eléazar if his own daughter is still alive. Eléazar says that she is and when Brogni asks where she can be found, Eléazar points to the cauldron, saying "There she is!" He then climbs to his own death while the Cardinal falls on his knees. The opera ends with a chorus of monks, soldiers and the people singing "It is done and we are avenged on the Jews!"

Recordings[edit]

Appropriations[edit]

Rachel, the Jewish prostitute in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, is nicknamed by the narrator "Rachel quand du Seigneur". As Halévy's Rachel is both Jewish and Christian, so Proust's Rachel is both sexual commodity and, in the eyes of her lover Robert de Saint-Loup, an idolised lady of great price.[4]

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ Macdonald, p. 926
  2. ^ Leich-Galland,1987.
  3. ^ Conway (2011), 216-218
  4. ^ Bowie, Malcolm (1998). Proust Among the Stars. Chapter 1 - Self. Harper Collins. p. 8. 

Sources