Opera Australia 2022 Review: La Juive

Natalie Aroyan & Diego Torre Shine in Carefully Constructed Production

By Gordon Williams

Credit: Prudence Upton

First performed in Paris in 1835, Fromontel Halévy’s “La Juive” finally opened its first Australian season at Sydney Opera House on March 9, 2022, in this co-production between Opéra National de Lyon and Opera Australia.

The production was to have been staged in 2020, but COVID-19 stymied those plans. Nevertheless, the determination of Opera Australia and a “La Juive Syndicate” of patrons headed by Sydney gallery director Philip Bacon saw that the production could finally take place, realizing a long-held dream of Opera Australia Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini, to present to Australian audiences one of the most popular operas of the 19th century, a work regarded by Gustav Mahler as one of the greatest operas ever written. It took 187 years to get here, but it has been worth the wait.

Reviving a Grand Opera Hit

Halévy’s opera is a tantalizing introduction to French Grand Opera and arguably more. At the interval, after Act two of Halévy’s five acts, I turned to a colleague, marveling, “It just keeps ramping up!” and bear in mind we didn’t see the full 1835 spectacle, complete with live horses. No wonder Wagner admired this work, despite the Jewish subject matter and the Judaism of the composer, which the notorious anti-Semite would have had to be at pains to overlook. Brilliantly and clearly laid out, “La Juive” inspires with the realization of how effectively opera can tell a huge tale. There is clearly a lot that can be learned about narrating a story on an epic operatic scale from the work of “La Juive’s” librettist, Eugène Scribe.

The story concerns Rachel, the ‘Jewess’ of the title (performed by Armenian-Australian soprano Natalie Aroyan), who is in love with Samuel, who, in reality, is the Christian prince, Léopold (Argentine tenor, Francisco Brito). Halévy and Scribe set the original story in the early 15th century in Constance, in Southern Germany. At the time it was death for a Jewish woman to love a Christian man whose own fate would involve ex-communication. To make matters worse, Léopold is already married to Princess Eudoxie (soprano, Esther Song) and Rachel is actually the daughter of a man who has become Cardinal Brogni (Australian bass, David Parkin). As a child, she was rescued from a fire by the Jewish goldsmith Eléazar (Mexican-Australian tenor, Diego Torre), who brought her up as his own. The story is ripe for conflicts moving pincer-like to a climax.

Olivier Py’s production revived by Constantine Costi set this tale of intolerance and extremism in 1930s France, complete with chorus-members waving placards demanding “Etrangers dehors” (Foreigners Out!), daubing walls with a Star of David, and burning books. It could be 15th century southern Germany or 1930s Europe, or just as easily today.

The score reconfigures an almost-kaleidoscopic range of forms and devices; ensembles of all manner, comprising trios, quartets, quintets, and often backed by the chorus, “La Juive” must be difficult to sing and particularly so since much of it is a capella. Full marks to the Opera Australia Chorus which contributed so much to the sweep of this work. The beginning of Act two, when Eléazar presides over a Passover celebration with part of this ensemble, was particularly touching and skillfully done. Along with the several major characters in this work, one must also add the chorus.

This operatic juggernaut may have easily fallen apart in performance; there’s an offstage organ (the opera opens with a “Te Deum”!), ‘lutes’ accompanying Léopold aka Samuel when he’s posing as an artist, tolling of bells here, a snare roll there, and fanfares. Yet, it was so expertly held together by Italian conductor Carlo Montanaro, whose sensitive accompaniment and marshaling of tempo often allowed this huge work to breathe and achieve a unified, unforced pace.

Complex Characters Convincingly Constructed

There was much to enjoy in the work of the principals. Natalie Aroyan as Rachel was the heart of the production. In her Act two Romance “Il va venir…” she conveyed a wide-ranging abundance of expectant emotion as she waited for her lover. As Léopold, Francisco Brito conveyed anxiety within the elegant charm of Léopold’s Act one serenade “Loin de son amie Vivre sans plaisirs” (or in the words of the eloquent surtitles: “A joyless life measured out in sighs…”). Esther Song’s Princess Eudoxie was a convincing portrait of an arguably more superficial character than the others (blowing bubbles over Léopold as he sleeps), but in duet with Rachel, her rival in love, revealing a matching depth of range. David Parkin portrayed Cardinal Brogni—so easily an unsympathetic character—with great conviction and even humanity. Baritone Andrew Moran’s Ruggiero, the town’s marshall, was a formidable strongman.

But they were all complex characterizations. Aroyan could cut through the ensemble with a rich accusatory tone when she suspected Samuel to be a traitor. And Brito, as Léopold could discover a convincing harshness when repeating the admission “Je suis chrétien,” which had at first been uttered less forcefully.

A onetime Domingo-Thornton Young Artist at Los Angeles Opera, Diego Torre, shone as Eléazar. Halévy originally created the role for the legendary tenor, Adolphe Nourrit, who had requested a tenor role that, for once, would not be “a faultless hero.” Torre took us on a journey— presiding beautifully over the Passover celebration in Act two, convincingly singing of the conflict in his heart in Act four’s “Rachel, quand du Seigneur…”, to infuriating stubbornness unto death at the very end.

“Rachel, quand du Seigneur,” where Eléazar marks the irony of having vowed to raise and protect Rachel, whom he now allows to die, is perhaps the most famous extract from Halévy’s work—recorded by Caruso, among others. We experienced a nicely shaped musical narration that hewed closely to the meaning of the text. There was much admirable detail in the production. For example, crescendoing sooner, it seemed to me, on the lines “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” when repeated, emphasized a growing understanding of the tragic dimension. Torre’s performance deservedly garnered him lengthy applause. A shout out also to the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra’s Cor anglais players Matthew Tighe and Jonathan Ryan, who so movingly introduced this number.

You could argue that Scribe’s libretto, for all its brilliant plot engineering, is slight on poignancy, though there are touching moments in the score. That said, probably the most heart-rending moment was a director’s touch—a sudden, brutal, and loud evocation of the Holocaust at the end of Eléazar’s Act four solo.

A Reminder of Past Horrors

And while some aspects of the production might be questioned, such as a motif of dead trees and bookshelves, the prevailing black-and-whiteness of Pierre-André Weitz’s set was most effective in underlining the 1930s setting. It created associations with monochromatic newsreel footage of pre-World War II events. The scarlet bedspread of Léopold and Eudoxie aside, this black and white scheme applied even to Eléazar’s black yarmulke and Brogni’s white zucchetto in a scene where layers of clothing are removed; a symbolic stripping of these characters down to their core humanity at a moment of honest confrontation.

We can judge a production on how well it elucidates the issues, and this one—to reuse the word I used before—ramped them up. The final chorus numbers were delivered antiphonally from the auditorium’s high side-balconies, giving it an interesting psychological effect. The ending of this opera recalls Verdi’s “Il trovatore.” Brogni, still unaware that Rachel is actually his daughter, reluctantly sends her to her death (when she might have relented and saved herself by renouncing her Jewish faith). Only then does Eléazar, digging to the bitter depths of an old desire to avenge his sons’ executions by Brogni years before, and more determinedly vengeful than even “Trovatore’s” Azucena, reveal too late that Rachel “was your daughter.”

“We are avenged on the Jews,” thundered the chorus. But really? It’s more like serpents swallowing their own tails. What was particularly sobering was the chorus out in the audience, among us, singing from our side. Were we meant to feel complicit?


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