Semperoper Dresden 2023-24 Review: Die Jüdin Von Toledo

Carsen’s Strong Direction Brings Glanert’s New Opera To Life

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Semperoper/Ludwig Olah)

The almost 800-year-old conflict on the Iberian Peninsular between the Spanish and the Moorish invaders gave rise to many stories of heroism, love and bloodshed. While some were based on fact, others were simply romantic embellishments or complete fabrications. One such tale of questionable authenticity concerns Rahel, the Jewish mistress of the King of Castile, Alfonso VIII. Overwhelmed by her stunning beauty, Alfonso was unable to resist her and took her as his mistress, which, given the religious and political tensions of the time, attracted the ire and venom of the Catholic hierarchy, the nobles and, not least, his wife, Eleonore. Although the king tried to retreat from the rising storm, his lack of character and weakness meant that he eventually gave up on Rahel and allowed her to be executed.

It is a tragedy that has inspired poets, painters and dramatists over the centuries, including Franz Grillparzer, whose work “Die Jüdin von Toledo” forms the basis of a new opera by composer Detlev Glanert and librettist Hans-Ulrich Treichel, which premiered on February 10th at Dresden’s Semperoper. 

A Straightforward, Clear Narrative with Theatrical Potential

The opera, in five acts, begins with the playful Rahel and her loyal sister Esther climbing into the royal gardens of the palace, where they are discovered by Alfonso, who is immediately taken with Rahel’s beauty. They are soon confronted by Manrique, Count of Lara, and his son Don Garceran, whose loyalties are to Spain alone and see in the Jewess a threat to the country, thereby setting up the driver that pushes the narrative towards its deadly conclusion. On departing, Rahel deliberately drops her shawl that Alfonso happily picks up, which is quickly followed by the Queen’s arrival on the scene. She lambasts Alfonso’s dithering and lackluster response in dealing with the Moorish threat, and on seeing the shawl in his hand, she launches into a mocking tirade, immediately establishing herself as the dominant force in their personal relationship with a natural grasp of how political power is wielded.

In the final four acts, the forces set into motion are played out as the personal and the political combine. Alfonso and Rahel’s love blooms. Esther offers her sister wise counsel and support. Don Manrique and Garceran, increasingly disturbed by Rahel’s influence on the king, turn against him while the Queen, motivated by power and jealousy, moves to bring the situation to a stable solution, which includes, of course, the death of Rahel.

Treichel’s libretto, which sticks closely to Glanert’s text, is in a traditional form, allowing for arias, duets and choruses, and is neatly constructed to carry the drama in an easy-to-follow fashion. However, although it had pleasing momentum, one or two scenes, most notably the central love scene between Alfonso and Rahel, were somewhat overplayed and would have benefited from a little pruning. His presentation of the characters was very well-crafted; each was not only layered and clearly defined but sensitively developed over the course of the evening. Alfonso, for example, appears fully committed to Rahel, even to the extent of allowing the affairs of state to take a backseat, yet when faced by the treachery of the Council, his anger and energetic response allow him to face it down. On the other hand, when confronted by the queen’s anger, he exposes a weakness and cowardliness that bordered on the pathetic, while his abandonment of Rahel to the assassin’s knife sent shivers down the spine. Yet they all combined successfully to produce a coherent, believable and nuanced portrait.

A Strong Score Given an Energetic Reading

Glanert created an eclectic score that incorporated the tonal with the atonal, using a wide orchestral palette. He occasionally drew on the stereotypical sounds of traditional Spanish/Moorish music to conjure the atmosphere of the period and the region, although he was quick to disrupt the development of the melody with aggressive brass and percussion to prevent the music from becoming clichéd and trite. It was also a score with plenty of energy that incorporated wide dynamic and tonal contrasts, moving from passages of anger, conflict and anxiety to passages of soft, calm and loving music, which were generally well-attuned to the drama.

The conductor, Jonathan Darlington, produced an engaging and dramatically strong reading from the Sächsischer Staatskapelle Dresden, in which he did not hold back in promoting the work’s sharp contrasts. On occasions, however, he arguably went too far; the level of the sound, at times, was painful on the ears, although he was careful to maintain an agreeable balance with the stage so that the singers could always be clearly heard.

Carsen’s Masterful Direction Uncovers the Underlying Themes

It was the excellent stage direction of Robert Carsen that really brought the drama to life. Picking up on the nuances of the libretto and responding sensitively to the music, he ensured that both the narrative and its underlying themes were clearly laid out before the audience.

Two themes, in particular, grabbed the attention. In Act two, Rahel sings “I am you” and exchanges clothes with Alfonso, drawing attention to the fact that their roles were not as clearly defined as they first may have appeared. Is Rahel really a passive mistress without political interests? Maybe there is something to the counsellors’ concerns about her influence on the king. There is now an ambiguity to their relationship that elevates other perspectives and prevents the audience from falling easily into the cosy belief that Rahel simply suffers due to her status as an ‘outsider.’ The significance of the scene could easily have slipped by without Carsen’s intervention. Moreover, it brought attention to the subtle ways in which the transference of power takes place, which was later given sharper focus in the scene where the queen imposes her will on the king to ensure Rahel’s death.

During the lovers’ reverie, the stage behind them comes to life with Jews, Christians and Muslims praying together and breaking bread. It was a beautiful and evocative scene in which the stage is bathed in a pale blue light with the lovers positioned front of stage, disconnected from what is happening behind. Is it their dream of a better future in which the religions are at peace with each other, a reflection of their own love between a Jew and a Christian, projected onto the world? Alternatively, was it simply an illusion in which the world is in a state of peace and the king has no need to involve himself in the affairs of the state? If he and Rahel are happy, then the problems of the world are of little importance! The exact meaning was of little concern, for it not only enlivened what may have been a dull scene, but by juxtaposing the love between individuals with the love between religious communities, it succeeded in highlighting that whereas today we might be accepting and open to religious and racial differences in matters of love between individuals, on a societal level it is still as problematic as it was almost 1000 years ago.

The point was reinforced in the final scene, in which the populace was armed by the authorities, some of whom donned shawls in the blue and white colors of Israel. Recent videos of the destruction brought about by the current war in Gaza were relayed onto the back of the stage. The racial and religious conflicts of the past have not disappeared. They are still present, driven by the same prejudices and hatreds that fueled the wars on the Iberian Peninsular, and the needless death of Rahel.

The scenery and costumes, designed by Carsen along with Luis F. Carvalho, successfully evoked the Moorish heritage of southern Spain while providing a more modern context, which further allowed the connections between the past and present to be forged. The scenes shifted from mosque-like interiors reminiscent of the Mezquita in Cordoba to weaker images in which more modern furniture dominated. The men were dressed in modern business suits, while the women were costumed in more traditional attire. It all came together well, and along with the lighting designs of Carsen and Peter Van Praet, it created a staging that was suitably atmospheric, one that also captured the cultural differences of the religious communities of the past and of the present.

Six Soloists, Six Excellent Performances

All the roles were given first class performances by a committed cast that brought the full depth of their characters to life.

The role of Rahel was played by soprano Heidi Stober who produced a playful, flirtatious reading that developed as the drama progressed, turning her into a loving, then anxious woman whose changeable emotions were brilliantly captured in her vocal presentation. Initially innocent, if somewhat unruly, it was the ambiguity that she allowed to creep into her portrayal that most impressed, as it gave substance, although not confirmation, to the suspicions of Don Manrique, Don Garceran and the other courtiers. Her singing was lively and versatile, with a bright complexion that helped promote her character’s youthful vitality, while her technique served her well in allowing her to present her deeper feelings.

Her sister, Esther, was essayed by mezzo-soprano Lilly Jørstad. Calm, thoughtful and responsible, she was closely attached to and supportive of Rahel and endeavored to keep her on the right track with her wise advice. She was also the only character who was wholly non-political. Her final aria, “Rahel, Rahel…,” in which she laments the murder of her sister, was given a powerful rendition, which brilliantly captured her pain and anger, while in the background the people armed themselves for war.

Baritone Christoph Pohl created a subtly and sensitively layered portrait of Alfonso VIII, which captured both the kingly and morally compromised aspects of his nature and convincingly exposed him as an unpleasant character that, at its core, is fundamentally weak. His voice had a seductive, lyrical quality; it was firm, resonant and secure with an appealing warmth that, on one level, captured his ardor for Rahel. However, there was always a sense that his feelings were somewhat self-indulgent and may not be as deeply held as they first appeared to be. He was strong in standing up to people in weak positions, in which he projected his voice forcefully and with authority, but recoiled in the face of the queen, where his voice took on a pathetic edge. Ultimately, he was a shallow character, unable to manage the personal alongside the political.

By contrast, his wife, Eleonore, played by mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, was a veritable force of nature, able to assert her authority at will. She was a Lady Macbeth-type character who dominated her husband and was prepared to do whatever was necessary to hold on to power. Baumgartner’s vocal characterization was superb; her singing was assertive and self-assured as she punched out uncompromising lines, heavily accented and full of dynamic contrasts, taking in audacious leaps and overlaid with a determined and authoritative force. Her Act 3 confrontation with Alfonso illustrated the real balance of power that existed between them. Aggressive, manipulative and certain, she made short work of bringing Alfonso into line as she mixed her determination to reassert the power of the crown with her desire for vengeance in what was another example of Baumgartner’s interpretative vocal talent.

Bass-baritone Markus Marquardt produced a finely nuanced performance as Manrique, Count of Lara, in which he convincingly shifted his allegiance towards the queen as his trust in the king’s judgement diminished. His singing was, on occasion, authoritative, at times indignant and demanding, and even reflective, and he successfully created a totally believable, multi-dimensional character.

Tenor Aaron Pegram produced a tidy performance as Don Garceran, in which he was suitably aggressive and ill-disposed towards Rahel. His singing was clear, articulate and balanced, underpinned by an attractive and secure upper register.

The Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden, under the direction of Jonathan Becker, gave a strong performance. It played significant roles including members of the council, religious groupings and the populace.

Overall, “Die Jüdin von Toledo” was a well-constructed work that, despite the occasional languor, had a pleasing musical and dramatic forward momentum, even if the narrative itself was fairly basic. Fortunately, Carsen’s insightful direction, which successfully connected mediaeval Spain to the present day, was able to draw out and develop its underlying themes in an imaginative and thought-provoking fashion that kept the audience fully engaged.


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