La Juive

La Juive

Though a highly successful composer and musician during his lifetime, Jacques Fromental Halévy (1799-1862) is remembered today for only one of his 36 operas. <I>La Juive</I>, premiered in 1835 with all the spectacular pageantry demanded of a "grand opera," was an instant triumph; admired by such disparate musicians as Rossini, Wagner, and Mahler, it remained an operatic staple for 100 years, but it has been conspicuously absent from the repertoire since then. This live recording by Austrian Radio (ORF) documents its 1999 revival at the Vienna State Opera. Why the neglect? The answer lies in Eugéne Scribe's libretto. Set during the 1414 Council of Constance, when religious fanaticism made liaisons between Christians and Jews a capital crime, it adds a new twist to the theme of illicit love between a prince and a commoner: Rachel is Jewish, Prince Léopold a Christian disguised as a Jew. However, though he callously betrays both her and his loving royal wife and infant son, it is the Jews' death the populace demands with blatant cruelty; Léopold is saved when Rachel retracts her revelation of his guilt, while she and her father Eléazar are thrown into a cauldron of boiling water. </p> What attracted Halévy, himself a Jew, to this exercise in rampant anti-Semitism? True, the libretto contained all the elements of high drama--filial love, passion, treachery, vengeance, sacrifice--and Halévy exploited them to the hilt, making the stock characters and their emotions and relationships human and moving. The opera is very long and never performed uncut, and this recording is no exception. The problem is what to eliminate. The innumerable, often interminable recitatives are musically weak but crucial to the plot, so only the ballets and some choruses are omitted. The music is uneven, sometimes rather trite, but keeps getting better, reaching its highest points in the characters' confrontations. Clearly, Halévy felt stronger about affairs of the heart than affairs of state and church. The orchestration is masterly, colorful