Neil Shicoff, the Brooklyn-Born tenor who is a regular member of the Zürich Opera and the Wiener Staatsoper, has made La Juive a signature work for himself, and his performance as Eléazar is superbly impressive. (He repeated this role in Moscow this season.)
It was director David Pountney’s conceit to take this story, originally set in the Germany in the 1400s, and move it to Paris at the time of l’Affaire Dreyfus. For the most part, this works quite well, surprisingly enough. The more questionable moments occur with the dance music, where Pountney and choreographer Renato Zanella provide an anti-semitic ballet—quite striking—if not in the best taste, with the dancers holding caricature placards.
One should recall that La Juive, Halévy’s first grand opera, was staged with incredible sumptuousness in 1835, complete with ballets, heavy armour, and equestrian outfits, but I doubt the dance scenes were meant to be what Pountney gives us.
Scribe’s libretto is filled with end-of-scene shocks in fastidious melodramatic fashion, and these were very well rendered. The revelation that "Samuel", Eléazar’s daughter’s lover, is in fact a Christian is one of these climaxes, as is the scene during the Passover seder in which he lets his matzoh fall to the floor.
A further complication ensues when it turns out that this "Samuel" is none other than the husband of Princess Eudoxie, a client of the Jewish goldsmith. (Talk about a "well-made" libretto!)
The main contretemps involves the anti-semitic Cardinal Brogni, who discovers at the end of opera that Eléazar’s daughter is in fact his, just as she is being put to death in a scene reminiscent of an Auschwitz gas-chamber, along with her "father".
Carlo Rizzi led a superb orchestra in delineating Halévy’s robust score. Apart from the most famous aria "Rachel! Quand du Seigneur", finely sung by Mr Shicoff, there were other indelible moments, mostly furnished by the the Armenian soprano Karine Babajanyan as Rachel, who has had a career principally in Germany. Alfred Muff was a suitably discomfiting cardinal, and American tenor John Osborn, who so delighted Zürich audiences opposite Cecilia Bartoli in Halévy’s Clari, was an excellent Léopold/Samuel. 0
Leave it to Zürich to stage two Halévy works so close together. While I possibly enjoyed Clari more (although it is more sentimental than comic), the production of La Juive was equally innovative. Now, if only the Zürich Opera will tackle Halévy’s little masterwork, L’éclair, I would be thoroughly delighted.
By Richard Traubner