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La Juive

Bavarian State Opera, Munich Opera Festival

In Review Munich Juive hdl 716
Ain Anger (Cardinal de Brogni), Aleksandra Kurzak (Rachel) and Roberto Alagna (Éléazar) in the final scene of Calixto Bieito’s staging of La Juive in Munich
Photo by Wilfried Hösl
In Review Munich Juive lg 716
Kurzak and John Osborn with Alagna's Éléazar, in the background
Photo by Wilfried Hösl
In Review Munich Juive lg 2 716
Veera-Lotte Böcker's Princesse Eudoxie
Photo by Wilfried Hösl

THE FIRST NEW PRODUCTION of this year’s Munich Festival was Calixto Bieito’s staging of Fromental Halévy’s La Juive, seen in Munich for the first time since 1933. Although the opera was frequently performed in Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when anti-Semitism became German public policy during the Nazi era, anything that placed Jewish people in a positive light was forbidden. 

Although a number of great sopranos (Lilli Lehmann, Rosa Ponselle) performed the role of Rachel, twentieth-century revivals of La Juive have generally occurred only when a world-class tenor decides to take on the role of Éléazar; the Met mounted it in 1919, after an absence of almost twenty years, as a vehicle for Enrico Caruso. Giovanni Martinelli was the Met’s Éléazar for more than a decade, until 1936, when the opera left the company’s repertory until 2003, when Neil Shicoff starred in a new production by Gunter Krämer.

La Juive is a long, sprawling score. As Bertrand de Billy, conductor of the present Munich production, points out, La Juive was never meant to be performed in an “integral” edition; it was seen by the composer himself as eminently malleable, with changes and adaptations expected. The first act, de Billy points out, has the least substance because fashionable Parisian operagoers of 1835, when La Juive had its premiere at the Opéra, tended to arrive only in time for Act II. The opera house was generally half empty for the overture and Act I ballet sequences—having nothing to do with the story—were de rigeur

De Billy and the Bavarian State Opera’s production team decided to make significant cuts in order to add to the plot’s cogency. As seen in the Nationaltheater on June 30, the overture and the ballets were gone as were, for better or for worse, large chunks of music. Halévy’s opera was admired by both Wagner and Verdi—there are several musically forceful and moving scenes and genuine melodic inspiration throughout—but a great deal of La Juive is conventional stuff. When an opera is “forgotten,” there is generally a good reason; although La Juive is certainly worthy of occasional revival, the opera will never again be regarded as standard repertoire.

The scenery by Rebecca Ringst consisted of a wall of ten columns, variously representing the outside of a church or the inside of Éléazar’s house. That was basically it. The modern-dress costumes by Ingo Krügler are dark and drab, with the exception of the outfit for the title character, Rachel, who appeared throughout in a green dress. 

Eugène Scribe’s libretto is a story of secret love, betrayal and revenge that is neither subtle nor of high literary quality. Stage director Calixto Bieito fails to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear: despite the opera’s depiction of rampant anti-Semitism and intransigent religious fanaticism, La Juive is nowhere near the dramatic level of The Merchant of Venice or Nathan the Wise. Bieito portrays the Christians as obstinately pigheaded, prone to exotic as well as erotic exaltation and perversely repressed in intellectual, emotional and sexual matters. Rachel remains the only halfway normal person onstage. There are bits of child molestation on the part of the Christians and Princess Eudoxie’s aria at the beginning of Act III is turned into a mad scene, a try at breaking the physical bonds of a tightly laced society. In her duet with Rachel, Eudoxie goes so far as to intimately caress Rachel. In turning the opera into a bleak parable of intolerance, Bieito’s production soon becomes dreary and uninteresting.

La Juive demands exceptional singing from all of the major roles. It also demands exceptional acting from the Éléazar. Roberto Alagna, who was making his role debut as Éléazar, should have been a fine exponent of the role, but his often weak upper register and lackluster declamation outweighed his moments of stunning vocalism. Alagna seemed to gain assurance as the performance progressed; his “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” was both lovely and moving, but the cabaletta that followed was a disaster, saved only by the loud voice of the prompter.

Aleksandra Kurzak, who was originally announced to sing the coloratura role of Princess Eudoxie, stepped in as Rachel when Kristine Opolais withdrew before rehearsals began. Kurzak was an appealing heroine whose commitment was unquestionable and whose voice grew in power as the evening progressed. She has the ability to sing quietly and showed an equally balanced upper and lower register. What one missed was the bloom, a sense of tonal seductiveness, the knowing turn of a phrase that would have made her performance of a great soprano role special. 

Estonian bass Ain Anger was a de Brogni of imposing vocal presence but of little French style. As Léopold, American tenor John Osborn deployed a somewhat small voice, at least compared to his colleagues onstage, but his approach was exemplary and the high lying tessitura of the role gave him no problems at all. 

The best impression of the evening, both vocally and dramatically, was given by soprano Vera-Lotte Böcker as Princess Eudoxie. She sang with pristine voice, immaculate coloratura and great sensitivity. Asked by her director to undress herself emotionally—and in a sense, physically—as well as to portray a woman moving from the summit of happiness to the brink of insanity, she distinguished herself in every respect. 

Conductor de Billy threw himself with conviction into the interpretation of the music and made the cut-down version of the score seem cogent. The chorus of the Bavarian State Opera, under the direction of Sören Eckhoff, sang exceptionally.  —Jeffrey A. Leipsic 

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