La Juive is a long opera and much of the music was written to accompany spectacular stage ceremonial. Recent productions of the opera have shown that it has the potential to work in a simpler setting. As performed in the Royal Opera House’s concert at the Barbican on Friday the work was substantially trimmed and revealed as quite a powerful drama.
The libretto is by Eugene Scribe, who wrote the librettos for many of the major French grand operas of the period. It uses his standard formula of contrasting major public spectacle with private torment. In this case the council of Konstanz forms the back drop for the more private dramas of the Jew Eleazar and his daughter Rachel. As in most Scribe librettos, a certain degree of unlikely co-incidence is included; Eleazar finds Cardinal Brogni’s daughter as an infant and adopts her. Years later Eleazar and Brogni clash and only after Rachel’s execution does Eleazar tell Brogni that she was his daughter. The opera pits the church’s persecution of Jews against Rachel’s illicit love for Christian Leopold. Eleazar is by no means a stereotypical character. He is by no means likeable and is bad tempered and rather grasping, but this is off-set by his love for his daughter.
The opera’s hit number is Eleazar’s Rachel, Quand O seigneur in which Eleazar sings of his love for his daughter whilst in prison. Eleazar was written for the Paris Opera’s star tenor, Nourrit. At the Barbican the role was taken by Dennis O’Neill; whilst O’Neill’s voice shows some signs of age his art is still impressive and in Rachel, Quand O seigneur he encompassed some fine mezza-voce singing. O’Neill’s Eleazar was a fully rounded character and O’Neill made his final moments profoundly moving.
As his daughter, Rachel, Marina Poplavskaya was stunning. She looks dramatic with her long hair and is able to spin a lovely fine line. The role of Rachel was created by Cornelie Falcon and it is modern in the way that the music eschew’s elaborate ornament and relies on the expressive line of the music. Poplavskaya gave no indication that she was singing a rarely performed role, her performance was dramatically fully rounded and not at all inhibited by the concert surroundings.
As Eleazar’s nemesis, Cardinal Brogni, Alastair Miles gave a thundering performance. But even here, the character is not all one-sided and Miles was able to display warmth and concern in the opening Act.
Dario Schmuck was Prince Leopold, Rachel’s love interest. Leopold is pretending to Rachel that he is a Jew called Samuel and it is Rachel’s unmasking of Leopold that leads her and Eleazar’s imprisonment. Schmuck made what he could of Leopold’s rather frivolous love interest and made a fine contribution to the dramatic ensemble with Rachel and Eleazar when Eleazar discovers the lovers trying to flee. Unfortunately, Leopold disappears entirely after Act 3 and has no involvement in the opera’s denouement.
His wife, Princess Eudoxie, has a small role to play dramatically but her musical role is to supply the elaborate roulades which are missing from Rachel’s music. Nicole Cabell tossed of Eudoxie’s elaborate arias with enviable charm and ability.
Halevy and Scribe alternate public and private acts and it is in the 2 private acts, Act2 and Act 4, that the nub of the drama occurs. Act 4 is set in prison and concludes with the aforementioned Rachel, Quand O seigneur. Act 2, set in Eleazar’s house, opens with a moving setting of the Passover meal, this is followed by the dramatic confrontation between Eleazar, Rachel and Leopold. All contributed to create strong, moving drama here.
The drama was a little slow to start, much of Act 1 seemed to be concerned with scene setting. But once Act 2 started, the drama took wing. Daniel Oren kept the proceedings moving and though the opera has quite a slow fuse there were few longeurs.
All of the singers were admirable in the way they presented the opera dramatically and their performances were most definitely not welded to their scores as can happen in this type of presentation.
It was admirable of the Royal Opera to present this piece and the concert performance was surprisingly involving. But I would still love to see it staged.