Sunday, November 9, 2003
New York Banished from its stage for 68 seasons as an outmoded relic of a bygone era, Fromental Halevy's "La Juive" has returned to the Metropolitan Opera, as timely as fanaticism and religious hatred.
The 1835 opera (translation: "The Jewess") tells of Jewish goldsmith Eleazar, his daughter, Rachel, and their persecution and eventual execution -- in a vat of boiling oil! -- in 15th-century Europe.
Written in the popular style of French grand opera, its five acts stuffed with ballets, processions, and lavish sets and scenic effects, "La Juive" was wildly successful for nearly 100 years. It influenced both Verdi and Wagner. Mahler called it one of the greatest operas ever written. And it was the last work Enrico Caruso ever performed at the Met.
But with changing musical tastes and the rise of Nazi Germany, "La Juive" lost favor, and for many years after World War II its subject was considered too raw to bear treatment in a musical entertainment.
Thursday night's premiere of a scaled-back production borrowed from the Vienna State Opera provided a rare chance to hear a piece of considerable musical and dramatic merit, made all the more compelling by events being played out in the world at large.
Much of the credit for the revival must go to American tenor Neil Shicoff, a cantor's son who has crusaded for the opera, as his great predecessor Richard Tucker did a generation ago. (The Met was preparing to stage a production for Tucker when he died in 1975.)
As Eleazar, Shicoff painted a chilling portrait of a proud, loving father bent on revenge against his Christian persecutors. It's one of the strengths of the Eugene Scribe libretto that neither Eleazar nor his chief antagonist, Cardinal Brogni, is painted as wholly sympathetic or villainous.
Vocally, Shicoff seemed to be holding back during the evening's first half, but he drew a deserved ovation for his impassioned account of the score's most famous aria, "Rachel, quand du Seigneur."
No such reservations are needed for the other holdover from the Vienna cast. Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski gave a radiant account of Rachel's music.
In one of the more improbable plot twists, Rachel turns out to be the cardinal's daughter, saved at birth from a burning house by Eleazar, who then raised her as his own. It's her love for Prince Leopold, who's not only Christian but married to boot, that precipitates the tragedy, since sex between Christians and Jews was a crime punishable by death at the time.
The show is being repeated seven more times through mid-December.