Murray Dahm talks to “La Juive”

March 9, 2022 by Murray Dahm
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I spoke with soprano Natalie Aroyan on the morning of the first rehearsal on the set of Fromental Halévy’s 1835 opera La Juive, the first day of production week.

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

She was excited to get on to the ‘scary’ staircase which makes up most of the set. Staircases present all sorts of interesting challenges, not only in how you move about the set but also in how you sing phrases which are required to be performed on them. We had an open, honest and engaging conversation about all things opera and La Juive. Aroyan had been set to perform the role of Rachel two years ago when the Covid19 pandemic interrupted those plans (they also disrupted Attila in which she plays Odabella, set for a return after this La Juive). Those postponements and cancellations caused all sorts of disruptions – not only to productions and all the work that had gone into them up to that point. The situation in the Arts was also one of great uncertainty and so keeping in vocal trim with an unknown future was difficult. So how great it is to see performances back on. The pandemic is still with us, but Opera Australia and the Sydney Opera House are going to great lengths to ensure a safe environment for performers, staff and audience members; the cast must complete antigen tests every day (often more than once). Masks are still worn despite not being required, all to ensure the opera goes on. It is a time to appreciate all the efforts, and all the many staff (most of whom are never seen or acknowledged), for putting opera back on our stages. Even an evening of high drama and tragedy is therefore a respite from the world around us – something an evening at the opera house always was but it is wonderful to see it reclaiming that position.

Halévy’s La Juive was first produced in 1835 (the same year as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor) and, in many ways it was far ahead of its time as an involving music drama full of passion and humanity, not to mention wonderful music. I asked Aroyan, who is usually associated with Verdian roles (we saw her in Ernani last year and she is reprising Odabella in Attila later this year) how different it was to sing an earlier role (and one in French). This is her first big role in French (she has sung Michaela in Carmen previously) and she praised the assistance from Nicole Dorigo, the language coach at Opera Australia (“she drilled us every single rehearsal”). The role sits well in Aroyan’s voice and she approached the role (as she does any role) by “singing through the emotion of the character.” This, in my opinion, is a splendid approach and, through the emotion, the colours to portray the role enter the voice. She always brings a little of herself in each role and this character of Rachel goes through an immense journey – at the start “she doesn’t know how strong she is, how much power” she has, “and we see that on this journey of hers;” from devoted daughter, the girl in love, to wronged woman and more – “I love playing those women!” We discussed how visceral the drama is in La Juive (another marker it was ahead of its time) and the themes of religious persecution and toleration make it as relevant as ever (and perhaps still controversial) almost 200 years after it first appeared. Some of these themes are still occurring around us and Aroyan drew upon her Armenian heritage to help process the ideas of the persecution seen in the opera. She also took great reassurance from the consultant on Jewish culture, Geoff Sirmai, employed for the production – there are details of gesture and word which are as authentic as they can be. Several of the supernumerary actors are also Jewish for that extra dash of authenticity. Some of the drama in La Juive is presented with stark (perhaps uncomfortable) realism and Aroyan praised the trust she has with the members of the Opera Australia Chorus, some of her closest friends, but who, in this opera embrace the “horrors of mob mentality” and menace her character of Rachel, looking like “they want to skin me alive.” This brings the story to, very real, life.

Playing Rachel’s father in the opera is Diego Torre, in the role of Eléazar. In most of Aroyan’s (Verdian) roles, the father is a baritone and, what is more, Torre usually plays her (tenor) lover. I asked if it was odd to have this switch. She said it was not but in fact “quite beautiful” because “Diego and I get on like a house on fire.” She adores him, and is a huge fan. They have sung so often together that their voices “know each other.” “I don’t even have to look at him to know what he wants to do” with a particular phrase; they know intrinsically what the other’s intentions are with the music.  What is more, because their voices blend so well together, the father/daughter dynamic seems quite natural. Aroyan also looks up to Torre as an artist so the father figure relationship is a natural one. There is trust and a sense of fun between them which allows them to explore the overwhelming drama of their relationship in this opera especially in a safe way – this only enhances the production. This collegial experience and trust, born of working together many times, gives their performing together, no matter the roles, an extra depth. It will be interesting to see how they go back to playing lovers after this! That said, Aroyan joked that when she heard how beautifully Torre sang Eléazar’s aria the first time, she asked that maybe it could be cut – ”I’ve never heard him sing so beautifully in my life … I was flabbergasted” – a stunning performance of “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” (the aria for which the opera isknown), to look forward to.  Aroyan’s relationship with the director Constantine Costi too is one she looks forward to for the depth of understanding he brings to productions and how much he listens to his performers and melds their ideas to make “something beautiful together”. I also spoke with Costi – but so much of interest was said, I will write that interview up separately! This production of La Juive, originally from Opéra National de Lyon, is set in 1930s France, a setting which enhances all the drama of Halévy’s opera, bringing it into sharper focus and reminding us that some of the opera’s themes are still very much with us and as relevant today as they ever were.

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