La Juive opens tomorrow

March 8, 2022 by J-Wire
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The French opera La Juive about a Jewish woman and a Christian man opens at the Sydney Opera House tomorrow evening. Murray Dahm talks to its director Constantine Costi.

Here is his report:

Natalie Aroyan stars in Opera Australa and Opera de Lyon’s 2022 co-production of La Juive.  Photo Credit: Opera Australia

Two days after speaking with soprano Natalie Aroyan, who takes on the role of Rachel in Opera Australia’s production of Fromental Halévy’s opera La Juive, I spoke with director Constantine Costi. The original production at Opéra National de Lyon was directed by Olivier Py and with any remounting of a production, a revival director is appointed. In every opera he directs, Costi must engage with a new cast of performers and make the drama real for them. As such, there is scope to bring something of his own input into every show. It varies from production to production, but Costi sees his role as understanding what he thinks the intention of the original production was and then to adapt it for the current cast. The material provided for revival directors is usually an archival video of the original production and the prompt book (the master copy of the production with the physical moves of the singers and actors and all the various technical cues) – these materials do not often (if ever) contain emotional or dramatic cues for the performers to use to develop their characters or portrayals. Costi’s approach is insightful: “I like to work very responsively with the people I have both physically because everyone’s body moves differently, the way they inhabit a character is different, and also psychologically.” Costi wants to tap into the broad, essential quality of what the original production was trying to do.

I pointed out that Natalie Aroyan observed that it was the emotions which drive her characterisations but that this must not be the same for every singer. Costi recognises that he must adapt how he directs to the disposition of each singer. One singer may require a discussion of the emotions whereas another may prefer a more academic or cerebral approach – Costi judges and chooses which approach is best for each performer; “you have to be almost liquid-like in a way”. Understanding this multi-faceted approach (and that there is not simply one way to direct, just as there is not simply one way to sing or act) really makes you appreciate all the effort which goes into putting a production on to the stage (and we do not often witness this process, only its outcomes). This approach of Costi’s is aided by the fact he knows many of the performers in this production already through having worked with them since 2018. He, therefore, knows in advance which approach works best with each and the trust built with resident artists through regularly working together. When working with new or unfamiliar performers, however, he must learn quickly which approach works best with the individual. Such a collegial approach to directing is wonderful to see. The French language of La Juive meant that pushing to the end of each line was important; “handling the dramatic intent within the structure of those sentences.” The singers therefore had to be deeply engaged with their intent and aware of who they were talking to.

This production is “massive” – La Juive is, in many ways, the stamp for French Grand Opera later in the nineteenth century: five acts, human story within a vast historical sweep, all the bells and whistles of historical tableaux. Listening to the opera you can hear influences on Georges Bizet (later, in the 1850s and early 60s, Bizet was a student of Halévy) and also on Wagner who admired the opera very much. Halévy’s opera also has an anvil – perhaps the later use of anvils in both Wagner’s Seigfried and Verdi’s Il Trovatore was a small homage to Halévy! In many ways, Halévy succeeds where later French Grand Opera did not (there is a reason they are seldom put

Murray Dahm

on – the closest is Verdi’s Don Carlos). Halévy’s human story is more engaging and more entwined and integral to the historical sweep (the Council of Constance in 1414, although in this production the action is updated to 1930s France – an era which brings the religious tensions and themes of persecution and toleration closer to home). Costi considers that the updated production enhances and amplifies the opera’s themes (something any setting of an opera should do). Other, later, Grand Operas sometimes can feel as if the human story is tacked on as an excuse for historical spectacle; here that is not the case and the 1930s setting makes that sweep more accessible with visibly familiar costumes and architecture. A setting in the fifteenth century runs the risk of making the humanity of the story inaccessible or some relic of a distant history. Here, the 1930s setting makes the extraordinary characters and the extraordinary dilemmas they find themselves in sing (if you will pardon the pun). Removing the extraneous historical trappings, we are left with the “red-hot beating heart of a story of a father and his daughter living in a world that does not want them” says Costi living in a world where “who you are and what you are” are important and where there is a conflict between those things.

Costi first directed a revival production in 2018 and his star has been on the rise ever since (he directed Pinchgut Opera’s innovative A Delicate Fire in 2020, one of the most remarkable ‘performances’ of the two years of lockdown we have endured. We spoke briefly about the difference between directing an opera production as opposed to a film – the biggest difference being the close up, so useful in film, but unavailable to the stage director. In addition to this, the ability to edit a selection of shots is also different to a stage production, which involves a ‘single-take’.

Fromental Halévy’s La Juive is an extraordinary, visceral opera which “pulls no punches” and, in Con Costi’s it is in good hands.

(Evenings at 7pm March 9, 15, 18, 22, 24 Saturday Matinees at 12pm March 12, 26)

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