Most composers would probably be astonished to see how radically contemporary directors and designers reimagine and reinterpret their operas nowadays, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they would all condemn the practice. Still, I can only guess at what Fromental Halévy would make of the Metropolitan Opera’s monochromatic new production of his La Juive, a huge hit at its 1835 premiere at the Paris Opéra and a repertory staple everywhere for nearly a century until it fell out of fashion. The Met last did the piece in 1936; by then, the company had already presented it 62 times.
It must have been quite a show. The styles and conventions of French grand opera were still being formed when Halévy was active, and he practically defined the genre with La Juive, giving his audience the works: a historical epic on a gigantic scale; bloody social and religious conflicts; spectacular crowd scenes of unparalleled grandeur and pomp; ballets, marches, and dances galore; flamboyant characters caught in melodramatic situations triggered by unexpected revelations and sudden coups de théÃ¢tre; demanding music for singers of every vocal category, from florid coloratura and lyric soprano to heroic tenor and suave basso cantante. Like all composers of French grand opera, Halévy aimed to please with a total entertainment on a lavish scale.
No opera company today, not even the Met, can afford to present La Juive as it was done almost 170 years ago. Even the singers who specialized in this music have long since disappeared. The Met’s current cast is certainly acceptable, but there are hundreds of recordings from the opera by singers born in the nineteenth century and thoroughly versed in the style that tell us precisely what we are missing.
The main reason La Juive all but vanished from sight was a growing impatience with its grandiosity and cumbersome mechanics, despite many impressive musical passages. To argue, as some do, that Nazis and the Holocaust are solely responsible for suppressing a once-popular opera about a fanatical fifteenth-century Jewish goldsmith and his Christian oppressors is ingenuous. Director Günter Krämer and designer Gottfried Pilz apparently subscribe to that theory, since they have stripped La Juive down to the barest essentials and updated the action, doing the opera few favors. Instead of the Swiss-German city of Constance in 1414, we seem to be in a pre–World War II Central European town. The split stage shows us the glittery salon of Prince Léopold looming over the dark, ghettolike home of Eléazar and his daughter, Rachel, whose affair with Léopold leads to her execution and Eléazar’s sensational disclosure that she is in fact the long-lost daughter of Cardinal Brogni. Turning La Juive into an opera purely about identity politics is a big mistake. Halévy was no Verdi, and even with major cuts his music simply isn’t strong enough to sustain a questionable production concept over an evening that still lasts four hours.
Many legendary tenors have excelled as Eléazar, most famously Caruso in his last performances at the Met, and what acclaim Neil Shicoff enjoyed on opening night was surely due to his effective acting. His voice was gray, and he shamelessly pulled the phrases of his big Act Four aria out of shape, even omitting the concluding stretta section. Soile Isokoski, on the other hand, sang magnificently as Rachel, using her radiant soprano to portray the girl’s conflict with extraordinary immediacy. Ferruccio Furlanetto sounded rather raw as Brogni, although Elizabeth Futral (Eudoxie) and Eric Cutler (Léopold) managed their elaborate arias decently enough, and Marcello Viotti conducted with enthusiastic commitment. La Juive, however, needs a great deal more than good will and vocal competence.