by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Nov. 24, 2003.
A hundred years ago, in the fall of 1903, Gustav Mahler was rehearsing Fromental Halévy’s opera “La Juive” in Vienna. By Mahler’s time, the art of French grand opera that Halévy exemplified had gone out of fashion, its stylized set pieces and grandiose production values superseded by Wagnerian stream of consciousness and naturalistic plots. Nonetheless, Mahler believed in “La Juive,” and he lavished special attention on the finale of Act III, in which Brogni, a cardinal in fifteenth-century Switzerland, condemns the heretical love of Léopold, a Catholic prince, and Rachel, the “Jewess” of the title. “Anathema! Anathema!” the Cardinal sings. The word signified not merely excommunication from the Church but everlasting destruction at the hand of God. At the rehearsal, Mahler watched in irritation as his chorus stood around passively. He demanded, “Do you have any idea what it meant to be condemned in the period in which this opera is set?” He jumped onstage to mime the expression that he wished his singers to assume. It was, an observer recalled, the face of a man in extreme terror, retreating from “the ray of death.”
“La Juive” is now playing at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time in decades, in a production borrowed, fittingly enough, from the Vienna State Opera. The ending of Act III achieved exactly the effect that Mahler desired. The music is potent in itself: for the announcement of the anathema, Halévy pairs a deep bass voice with a relentless triplet figure in the trombones, and then gathers the full orchestra and chorus into a hurtling mass. But audiences also register the haunting historical resonances that have collected around this opera since its première, in 1835. It is a work by a Jewish composer in which anti-Semitism is a motivating force. Wagner, the foremost anti-Semite of the age, inexplicably loved it; Mahler called it one of the greatest operas ever written. It is, for all its melodramatic trappings, a profoundly unsentimental story in which hate engenders hate: Rachel’s father, the long-suffering Éléazar, becomes as fanatical as the Christians who denounce him. “La Juive” starts out like a creaky period piece but ends up revealing more fundamental human ugliness than audiences may want to see.
The man who unleashed this sophisticated horror was an easygoing professional who did nothing else nearly as remarkable in his career. Wagner described him as “open and honest, and not a premeditatedly cunning trickster like Meyerbeer.” (Wagner should have written, “like me.”) Halévy was no revolutionary, but he did make intelligent use of an enlarged orchestra and a dramatically foregrounded chorus. His greatest asset was Eugène Scribe’s blood-and-thunder libretto, which has one of the most impressively lurid kickers in the canon. At the very end of the opera, Rachel is thrown into a boiling cauldron, with Éléazar soon to follow. Before he dies, however, he reveals that Rachel is not his child, nor is she a Jew; she is, in fact, the long-lost daughter of Cardinal Brogni. Éléazar could have saved her with a single word, but his hatred of the society around him has grown too great. Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” arrives at a very similar you’re-burning-the-wrong-person epiphany.
What sort of statement the liberal-Catholic Scribe and the assimilated Halévy wished to make on Jewish matters is not really clear. Diana Hallman, in a book about “La Juive,” concludes that the intention was not so much to celebrate the Jews as to set forth a “critique of the intolerance and despotism of political and religious institutions.”Éléazar, the central character of the piece, is an ambiguous creation: he is shown as a devout man, presiding over a touching Passover Seder at the beginning of Act II, yet he also fits the stereotype of the Jewish miser. Many nineteenth-century anti-Semites were also enemies of the conservative order, which perhaps explains why the liberal Wagner found this opera so compelling. One of the great inspirations of “La Juive” is the ironic use of a church organ and the Te Deum as counterpoint to the action. Verdi and Wagner both copied the effect. Wagner, in addition, probably took his “Magic Fire” music from a weirdly glittering passage that plays after Rachel exposes Léopold as the lover of a Jew.
Mahler’s fascination with “La Juive,” which began early in his career, must have been based on a deeper identification. All around him were the narrowed eyes and mistrustful stares of those who saw a kind of heresy in his “marriage” to the Vienna Court Opera. He talked of transcending his Jewishness, yet, like Éléazar, he became defiant in the face of prejudice. So it is no surprise that reminiscences of “La Juive” can be found in his works. He was almost certainly recalling the instrumental introduction to Éléazar’s Act IV aria when he wrote a parodistic Jewish melody for a pair of oboes in his First Symphony. I also wonder whether the savage five-note up-and-down figure that recurs in several of the symphonies—notably, in the funereal brass melody at the beginning of the Third and in the stormy second movement of the Fifth—might be traced back to the music of Cardinal Brogni’s “anathema,” which the composer rehearsed so thoroughly in 1903. Finally, and most strangely, the choral exclamation “Bereite dich!”—“Prepare yourself! Prepare to live!”—in the Second Symphony is copied note for note from the chorus “Au pécheur, Dieu,” in Act V, in which the Christians pray for the Jews to be pardoned for their sins.
Tenors could be forgiven for thinking that some sort of curse hangs over the role of Éléazar. It was the last thing Caruso ever sang in public; early on Christmas Day in 1920, a few hours after appearing in “La Juive” at the Met, the tenor doubled over in screaming agony, the victim of an attack of pleurisy. He died seven months later. A few decades on, Richard Tucker was urging the Met to mount the opera for him; as a former cantor in New York synagogues, he had a special feeling for the part. One week after the Met finally relented, Tucker died of a heart attack.
Neil Shicoff, a cantor’s son born in Brooklyn, has broken the spell. In recent years, this veteran tenor has found new solidity in his singing and acting, and with “La Juive” he is having the triumph of his career. His Éléazar is a fully imagined and beautifully shaded portrait of a good man driven into a state of irremediable rage. At first, his voice sounded pinched, and he was in danger of being upstaged by the excellent young tenor Eric Cutler, who sang the role of Prince Léopold. In fact, Shicoff was husbanding his resources, and he gathered strength as the evening went on. In a very moving way, he applied touches of cantorial style—knowing, perhaps, that Scribe originally envisioned the character as a rabbi. His Act IV tour de force, “Rachel, quand du seigneur,” was a purely musical howl of emotion. Unfortunately, this production omitted the final cabaletta, although it would have further illuminated Éléazar’s motivation: his desire for vengeance is redoubled when he hears a mob calling for the death of Jews.
Shicoff’s performance would have sufficed for a brilliant evening, but Soile Isokoski, who sang the part of Rachel, drew an equally wild ovation. The young Finnish soprano is immensely secure across her entire range, with ringing high notes and a rich, expressive lower register. What’s more, she is an openhearted, transparently emotional singer—a major artist in the making. Also in the cast were the usually captivating soprano Elizabeth Futral, having a somewhat unsteady night as the Princess Eudoxie, and Ferruccio Furlanetto, who found not only the implacable will but also the deep-seated sorrow of Cardinal Brogni. The conductor, Marcello Viotti, is no Mahler, but he elicited a forceful, kinetic sound from the orchestra.
Günter Krämer, the director, drew crisply defined performances from all the singers. Unfortunately, he got only heavy-handed symbolism from his set and costume designers, Gottfried Pilz and Isabel Ines Glathar. The Christian “establishment” was dressed all in white, with ridiculous Tyrolean costumes predominating; the Jews lived in an inky-black underworld. A visit to the Jewish Museum in Berlin might have revealed the chilling pictorial possibilities of a more realistic approach. One of the most frightening artifacts of anti-Semitism that I have ever seen is a medieval image in that museum, showing the expulsion of the Jews from Nuremberg. An endless line of them stretches out from the gates, far more than a medieval city could possibly have held. The artist was expelling an infinite number of Jews from his mind. Perhaps Mahler was recalling such ancient scenes when he acted out ultimate terror on the stage of the Vienna opera, or perhaps he had an inkling of what was to come.
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