La Juive Resurrected: Fine Cast, Muddled Staging

I was startled to read in the program for the opening night of the Met’s new production of La Juive that this was the company’s 63rd performance of the opera, a work I had previously thought notable only for Enrico Caruso’s recording of the aria “Rachel, quand du Seigneur.” Written by Fromental Halévy, a once-fashionable 19th-century French composer whose name is now more obscure than that of his librettist, Eugène Scribe, La Juive premiered at the Met in 1885. Subsequent performances featured some of the brightest luminaries of the company’s golden age, including Caruso, Rosa Ponselle, Giovanni Martinelli, Elisabeth Rethberg and Ezio Pinza. Last seen at the house in 1936, the opera then disappeared from sight, thanks in part to the politically charged discomfort of its subject: the persecution of Jews.

The revival of an opera that ends with the state-ordered execution of its title character (“The Jewess”) for the crime of loving a Christian is still a risky business, but with an unaccustomed eye toward the front page-not to mention special marketing-the Met has embraced La Juive wholeheartedly. There’s even a portrait exhibition of the company’s roll call of distinguished Jewish singers and musicians down through the years: Richard Tucker, Risë Stevens, Leonard Bernstein, etc. (A beefy, red-faced man in the ticket line muttered to his companion, “They wouldn’t do this for the Irish!”)

Opening night was packed, and the lobby swirled with the headiest range of operagoers and non-operagoers that I have seen in some time. Boldface names in Boss and Herrera (Mikhail Baryshnikov, Marisa Berenson) were joined by rabbinical figures in skull caps and priests in dog collars. What they witnessed over four long hours was the unsettling, ultimately stirring spectacle of superb performances in the service of a misbegotten production.

Halévy (1799-1862) was a musical prodigy-his mentor was the esteemed director of the Paris Conservatoire, Luigi Cherubini-and a triumph of Jewish assimilation in post-Napoleonic Europe. Although he lacked the musical genius of Mendelssohn and the promotional skills of Meyerbeer (both of whom were also well assimilated), Halévy enjoyed a prolific run of successes at the Opéra-Comique and Paris Opéra. La Juive , which had its premiere in 1835, was his first serious grand opera and the only one of his works to outlive him.

Paris, in those days, liked its operas big, and La Juive was the Ben-Hur of its time. Lavishly staged to replicate the 15th-century Swiss city of Constance, where the embattled Jewish goldsmith Eléazar and his wayward daughter Rachel are crushed by a repressive Church, the opera scored a knockout with audiences and critics for its elevated humanism and parade of choruses, arias, duets and trios. Even the anti-Semitic Wagner was moved to say, “I have never heard dramatic music which has transported me so completely to another historical epoch.”

That magic has apparently faded with the years. Despite its unflagging energy, the score rarely rises above the tuneful, the effective or the showy. (The most beautiful moments occur in the “Jewish” stretches-notably in the gorgeously quiet, largely a cappella Passover scene.) Halévy was a good weaver, not an originator, and as the set pieces piled up, my ear grew weary of being treated to music that evoked the spirit of Weber, Bellini, Berlioz and early Verdi without quite attaining a distinctive freshness.

But perhaps I would have felt differently had the Met been true to its old self and staged La Juive with the grandeur it had in Wagner’s day-in other words, with Zeffirellian epic scale and the sort of attention to picturesque detail the house has expended on so many operas that could have done with a lot less. Instead, the company imported a production by a German producer, Günter Krämer, from the Vienna State Opera. For muddled, postmodern simple-mindedness, it would be hard to beat.

After the haunting, spare overture, we’re greeted by a semi-transparent scrim that obliterates any sense of historical time and place. (Religious persecution is timeless and universal.) When the good people of Constance turn out to celebrate the defeat of dissident forces, they’re garbed in uniform white Tyrolean costumes out of Sound of Music ; robotically, they wave paper flags. (Those brain-dead Christians, you know.) Soon come the oppressed Jews, Eléazar and Rachel-not in exotic finery befitting the town’s top jeweler and his daughter, but in long-suffering shtetl black. When Act II opens, Eléazar’s house is revealed to be a black hole without any material comfort. Directly above is the realm of Rachel’s duplicitous Christian lover, Prince Léopold, and his wife, Princess Eudoxie-an ice-cold, all-white dining room with an enormous chandelier that might have been designed by Morris Lapidus for a lobby in Miami Beach. When the Princess invites Rachel into her house, the two women remain confined to their black and white realms, communicating, one has to assume, by telepathy. The only visible sign of the Church’s authority is a miniature tin dome with a cross on top. At the opera’s end, the dome is transformed, meaningfully, into the fiery cauldron to which Rachel is condemned.

The staging provoked titters and consternation. When Eléazar discovers that his daughter is in love with a Christian, he doesn’t try to strike him, unsuccessfully, as the libretto indicates, but leaps with a knife to the impostor’s throat. Ludicrous use is made of many chairs (sometimes they repel the hapless Jews, sometimes they’re ladders that enable the characters to get from downstairs to upstairs and vice versa-during one infelicitous journey, Rachel nearly took a tumble). Inexplicably, Léopold remains onstage after his banishment, sitting stonily while his lover is hurled to her death.

All this undoes Halévy and Scribe’s efforts to shade each character with complexity. Nonetheless, a first-rate cast-expertly if sometimes too leisurely guided by the conductor, Marcello Viotti-delivered a powerful case for the opera’s survival. Although the Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski’s Nordic brightness of tone and lack of physical allure made her an odd choice for Rachel, her steady projection of the role’s fortitude and vulnerability proved entirely convincing. The bass Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Cardinal Brogni overcame a wobbly beginning to produce a commanding figure of touching frailty. Two young Americans, Eric Cutler and Elizabeth Futral, made brilliant impressions in the high-flying parts of the Prince and the Princess.

Neil Shicoff, who championed the work and sparked the Met’s interest, was a memorable Eléazar. His embittered jeweler came close to caricature: a bent, shuffling, cowering figure in the grip of unremitting rage. Typically, he started off too loud and got even louder. But his interpretation of “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” was thrilling. As he sang of his conflict between faith and paternal love, he shed articles of clothing-jacket, shoes, socks-and cradled them in his arms, as if consoling himself for his impending martyrdom. It was a coup de théâtre made all the more eloquent by the cantorial coloring of Mr. Shicoff’s tenor. So intense was his singing that I worried he might burst a blood vessel-just as Caruso did in this, his last role. But Mr. Shicoff emerged unscathed to savor a huge ovation that was clearly as heartfelt as it was deserved.

La Juive Resurrected: Fine Cast, Muddled Staging