La Juive: an opera review by Murray Dahm

March 11, 2022 by Murray Dahm
Read on for article

Fromental Halévy’s La Juive is often considered a tenor’s opera.

Natalie Aroyan as Rachel in Opera Australia’s 2022 production of La Juive at the Sydney Opera House. Photo Credit: Prudence Upton

This is because the great Act IV aria “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” is the work’s most popular and tenors since Enrico Caruso have planned performances around their rendition of it. Don’t get me wrong, Diego Torre’s Eléazar sang it stupendously (and received the longest and loudest applause for it) but Natalie Aroyan’s Rachel reclaimed the opera for its eponymous heroine. Hers was a performance which plumbed the depths of the character’s dramatic journey from dutiful Jewish daughter (although one with a secret) to vengeful slighted lover. Vocally thrilling and dramatically deeply satisfying, it was her night in every number (and only she really got a scene with every other principal).

Aroyan was ably supported – firstly by the sensuous and vocally exciting Esther Song as the Princess Eudoxie whose secure vocal pyrotechnics were in keeping with the character. The two women were a study in contrasts – both in love with the same man, both betrayed by him but both also willing to sacrifice themselves for him (he was thoroughly underserving of their love – but we’ll get to that!). Even in the black costumes Rachel and Eudoxie were contrasted – one in a simple demure black dress, the other in a high-split gown that showed a lot of leg; one was matt and plain, the other sparkled, encrusted in diamantes.

The subject of their love was Francisco Brito’s Léopold (although pretending to be Samuel to Rachel). From the start, we in the audience know Léopold was pretending to be the Jewish Samuel to secure the heart of Rachel. What we do not know is that he is also married (to Eudoxie). When that was revealed, there were gasps. Up to that point, his pretence of being Jewish (despite actually being a Christian) was probably forgivable. From the revelation he is married onwards (which in this production was shown in Eudoxie’s Act III aria), his duplicity is revealed for all to see. Brito’s singing was gloriously French and his tone contrasted well with Torre’s father (so too did the two sopranos, Aroyan and Song) – in an opera with two tenors and two sopranos among the leads this was essential and well done. In Brito’s characterisation, however, there was an apparent contradiction of his sincerity in both relationships despite some lines talking of his anguish. When he was accused in public of being with a girl of the Jewish faith (a crime in 1414 France when the opera was originally set), he unfortunately looked more like a guilty schoolboy. Perhaps part of the problem with this came from the updated setting – to  1930s France, inherited from the Opéra National de Lyon.

For the most part, however, the updated setting served the story – it did not distract from the human drama at its core. All the costumes were black or shades of white which was a little bland. The set itself was dominated by a black staircase and other parts of it were also black, almost constantly moving. This did bring the human drama to the fore but, I wonder if that would have been true in any setting. The idea of blackshirts in France in the 1930s and their supporters with placards of ‘A mort l’estrangers’ (‘death to foreigners’) reinforced the drama but it did not go far enough. The trend of many modern productions to embrace fascist and Nazi Germany settings of operas was avoided here – but that metaphor was considered necessary at the opera’s most dramatic points – the shocking cascade of shoes and the execution of Jews both embraced Holocaust imagery (which is out of time with an opera set earlier in the 1930s). What is more, a fascist German setting would have made the illegality of a Jew and Christian marrying more real which was clearly the crux of the story (as it was there were mutterings near us of ‘what was the issue’ with marriage between a Christian and a Jew). Nonetheless, I am glad this opera was not set in Nazi Germany – it told its story without the need for such devices. Perhaps the updated setting put the characters in costumes which looked more like the dress of our own times and so it ‘modernised’ the tale. The updated setting also meant that the great visual display expected in such historical operas (a parade of armoured knights is sung about in the libretto) could be avoided – we only got the above-mentioned placards and a single, simple cross (when the entire chorus produced crucifixes to denounce the Jews later in the opera had more impact). The soldiers who obeyed Léopold’s orders (he had been their commander) as costumed were not obviously soldiers which was a little confusing.

Diego Torre as Eléazar and the Opera Australia Chorus in Opera Australia’s 2022 production of La Juive at the Sydney Opera House.  Photo Credit: Prudence Upton

At its core, the opera is about Rachel’s journey but it is her relationship to her father Eléazar which drives it. He is both a loving father and a man driven by a burning desire to have his revenge of the Christians (and especially his ‘enemy’, Cardinal Brogni (performed by David Parkin)). Torre brought out the most of the character – both he and Aroyan’s more Italianate sounds matched the extensive passions of their characters. Parkin warmed into his role – in his middle and upper registers especially. His opening aria “Si la rigueur et la vengeance” could have had more sense of line but later, in Brogni’s impassioned pleas after learning that his daughter was alive (a daughter who he thought had died years ago in a fire in Rome), he was very moving. In fact, the most touching moment for me was the duettino between Brogni and Rachel “Devant le tribunal vous allez comparaître”. This was also the occasion of one of two especially touching moments of direction from Constantine Costi. On the whole, Costi directed the show with great surety, care and movement – the show never felt static (which singing on stairs could easily have led to). The incisive moment in this scene between Brogni and Rachel for me was when Brogni kissed Rachel’s forehead – inadvertently echoing the kiss on the forehead from her father earlier. The other moment which gave wonderful dramatic insight was Eudoxie realising that the necklace she had been given by Léopold was the same as one which Rachel wore – little moments but telling ones.

Murray Dahm

All the performers dealt with the stairs with aplomb, I saw no trips or stumbles which must be an ever-present hazard on a set which consists largely of a staircase. In some instances, the stairs added to the drama, such as when Eléazar was dragged on – there was palpable sense of frisson that a fall could happen at any moment. Torre especially used the stairs to great advantage, but all looked confident on them. On only a couple of occasions was a glance downwards to check on footing seen among the chorus. The chorus were magnificent, especially in the shattering final scene and throughout they brought a sense of menacing mob-mentality. All the smaller roles were well taken – special mention to Richard Anderson’s Albert whose singing had a real French authenticity to it.

All of the singing was led ably from the pit by maestro Carlo Montanaro who was sympathetic to the performers allowing them to shine and wrought, in turns, incisive and masterful playing from the Opera Australia Orchestra.

There are six performances of La Juive left (Evenings at 7pm March 15, 18, 22, 24 Saturday Matinees at 12pm March 12, 26). This is an opera which was ahead of its time – first performed in 1835 – in it you can detect influence on Verdi, Wagner and Bizet and a visceral dramatic core we only expect from operas later in the century. It was one of the world’s most popular operas in the 19th century but has sadly dropped out of the repertoire. It is full of luscious melody; single lines develop into duet and ensemble unexpectedly and the arias are showstoppers. You will regret it if you do not get along.

For Booking:

Speak Your Mind

Comments received without a full name will not be considered
Email addresses are NEVER published! All comments are moderated. J-Wire will publish considered comments by people who provide a real name and email address. Comments that are abusive, rude, defamatory or which contain offensive language will not be published

Got something to say about this?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.