Grand opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 4 hours 11 minutes.
WARNING: I am currently in the process of revising this post, the first two acts are completed, the third needs some added work but is mostly done, the last two acts have not been revised yet.
This will prove to be an interesting entry. There are many different versions of this opera, with numbers being put in and taken out depending on the whim of the conductor. With the numerous ballets and choral numbers restored, the opera is more than four hours of music. Sometimes seen as an attempt by Eugene Scribe calling for the normalization of Jews in French society, the opera mostly demonstrates the fragility of European Christian snowflakes.
PLOT: Constance, Switzerland, 1414. In short, Rachel (soprano) is the daughter of the Jewish goldsmith Eleazar (tenor) who is seduced by Prince Leopold (tenor) who is married to Princess Eudoxie (coloratura soprano), the niece of the German Emperor. Rachel turns out to actually be the long-lost daughter of Cardinal Brogni (bass), who had Eleazar’s wife and five sons burned at the stake in Rome around twenty years earlier.
Thank you to Giacomo Meyerbeer Sohn for painstakingly compiling the various recordings together to create this complete document of La Juive.
The complete version demonstrates that the first two acts are nearly half the length of the opera, a little over two hours. And the last two acts are combined around the total length of the third act.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A street scene in Constance, the Cathedral on one side, Eleazar’s shop on the other. (65 minutes)
0: The overture ** brilliantly consists of various themes from the opera. The best music is the marvellous final minute with its descending crescendo followed by a mad violin one scatter. There is one theme (the first) that will return much more dramatically (if quietly) in Rachel’s act 2 aria as she waits for Leopold to return. Four hours to go!
13, 18: Hosanna! plaisir! ivresse! Organ music brings us into a deathly serious Christian victory hymn as the German townspeople celebrate the Emperor’s victory over the Czech Hussites *. Some people mention that Eleazar is still working on this victory day. Rachel tells her father that they had best go back inside as the goyim are looking at them. Leopold shows up with Captain Albert and they go on about how if Leopold is successful in his planned seduction of Rachel that both of them will be punished because Jewish-Christian relationships are totally illegal, plus Leopold is married to the Emperor’s niece. All of this is just intro recitative material laced with sometimes rousing but rather standard choral-organ sequences and expansions on the choral elements *. Eleazar is heard working and even talking about the spiritual value of work (which has been forbidden that day by order of the Emperor and announced by Ruggiero, the mayor of Constance) by the gentiles and they all complain. Rachel comes back on when Eleazar is dragged outside and Eleazar tells everyone that he really doesn’t care what anyone thinks because the Christians murdered all of his sons. This mostly plays up the fact that the Christians all have such fragile egos that anyone not so much disagreeing with them but not being as enthused as they turns them into right-wing snowflakes (this gets annoying fast, but is factually correct and the opera is saturated in it).
28: Si la rigueur et la vengeance The Cardinal Brogni arrives and quells his peeps and confronts Eleazar who reminds him of his dead wife and daughter and how the Cardinal was once a secular magistrate who killed Eleazar’s wife and sons and banished him from Rome. Brogni bizarrely wants to make friends and Eleazar (rather logically) refuses. This leads to a rather tuneful ensemble ** in which Brogni (stupidly but typical of a Christian thinks he can convert Eleazar through sugary kindness), Rachel starts to weaken (not realizing that Brogni is her actual father), Eleazar is sickened by all the honey used as sauce to sugar, and Ruggiero thinks that all the sugar is why Christians fail. The lyrics are rather stupid, but Halevy frames it with a lovely melody akin to Gounod on a good day, but it ends like the whined-down to Voce di Donna.
34: Loin de son amie Leopold returns and serenades Rachel ** to some good high tenor vocal gymnastics.
39: Quelle voix chérie Rachel duets with Leopold in what is theoretically a recitative and a reprise of his serenade **. Rachel tells Leopold (who she thinks is ‘Samuel’ and Jewish) to come to the Passover seder that evening.
41: Du vin! Du vin! etc. The finale starts off with choral members excited about revelling in the evening festivities *. In the midst of the revelry Rachel and Eleazar (trying to cross the square) end up on the steps of the Cathedral. They are attacked by Ruggiero who stirs the crowd against them over and they are about to take them and drown them in the local river but Leopold arrives and Albert comes on with his soldiers and seeing Leopold commands that the soldiers protect the two Jews or suffer his wrath. A ballet is performed.
56: O surprise nouvelle! Rachel starts off the ensemble as she first questions just who Leopold is **.
61: Que toujours elle ignore Absolutely the last part of the act one finale starts off with a comparative quiet “thinks” from all of the principles leading to a mildly crashing finale choral number, more organ-choral music ending the scene **.
ACT 2: The interior of Eleazar’s home, a Passover seder proceeding. (60 minutes)
2: O Dieu de nos Pères! A nice sweet entr’acte forwards right into the seder scene *** a brilliant piece of a cappella singing.
7: Dieu! que ma voix tremblante! After Rachel observes Leopold inappropriately disposing of his matzot Eleazar starts up a rather lovely and starling prayer ***.
13: Tu possedes, dit-on There is a knock at the door and quickly the Jews have to disperse and the passover setting is removed. Eudoxie (the coloratura soprano role) arrives inquiring after a great jewel Eleazar owns which she wants to purchase for her husband Leopold in honour of his victory over the Hussites, all the while Leopold hears all of this from behind the door and is never actually see by Eudoxie. This trio is masterful and you really get through the music what each character is thinking (Eleazar wants to get paid, Eudoxie joyous over the return of her husband, Leopold terrified and repentant) ***. Leopold excuses himself to Rachel and leaves promising to return soon.
28: Il va venir! Rachel waits for Leopold, references to the overture pop in and out along with a Weberian horn **.
36: Rachel, je suis Crétien. Leopold returns (why exactly did he leave in the first place, for four minutes?) and admits to Rachel that he is a Christian. She is shocked and reveals to us that the nature of their relationship is explicitly a sexual one. The number works brilliantly with Rachel terrified and Leopold (although a lech) extremely romantic *** and regretting nothing although Rachel reminds him that they have done something that will get them both killed. He begs her to run away with him, she refuses but he presses and she gives in until Eleazar returns.
46, 50: Je vois son front coupable/Pour lui, pour moi, mon père Confronting the lovers with their guilt, Eleazar for the first time seems here to actually be controlling Rachel for another reason (revenge on Brogni) ***. At first he is willing to forget (but not forgive) what Leopold has done because he is a fellow Jew but once Leopold’s gentile status is confirmed Eleazar wants to rip his throat out but Rachel melts her father’s heart with a lovely appeal ***. Eleazar is about to give in when Leopold himself refuses to marry Rachel which then enrages both Jews against the Christian lech.
56: Et bien donc Eleazar curses Leopold who runs away and Rachel wants to figure out what other secret Leopold is keeping from her **.
ACT 3: (63 minutes).
Scene 1: Eudoxie’s chambers.
2: After some orchestral broodiness Eudoxie arrives and gives us a happy song in which she…tries to imitate birds? It is okay with all the coloratura flourishes but it goes on too long and is probably the weakest and mildest item in the score, certainly the closest to sounding like Johann Strauss Jr. *.
13: Eudoxie hires Rachel as one of her ladies in waiting for the day’s festivities and all this is so foreboding as the two women go about fearing that the worst is going to happen **.
23: Rachel leaves and Leopold arrives and duets with Eudoxie, although at first it is mostly just Eudoxie giving us more of her coloratura in a Bolero about how loyal she is to her husband “my lord and master” which I am now starting to truly wonder why it is so famous *.
Scene 2: A great hanging garden in the palace.
28: The ballet ** almost seems like a bizarre musical exercise, the sort of which one engaged in in elementary piano lessons. It is surprisingly attractive music, although it does feel as if the ballet is occurring rather late in the opera.
42: The twenty-minute finale begins with a goodly chorus *.
48: The number proper starts with Eudoxie attempting to put the chain on Leopold and Rachel exploding that he is a rat *** who is unworthy of it and also a criminal Christian who has seduced and abandoned her, a Jewess! Notice the orchestral explosion that sounds like the Magic Fire Music from Wagner’s Die Walkure: he stole it from Halevy!
49: A sextet with chorus **. Leopold is ashamed, Eudoxie is frankly lost and doesn’t even think God can help her now, Rachel and Eleazar know that they are both going to die for this even if it is the truth but still trust in God.
52: Eleazar demands that Leopold be punished, fully acknowledging that for Rachel and himself only death awaits. Brogni declares an eternal excommunication curse on Leopold that can never be revoked, even in death. In other words, he is eternally damned and exiled from the empire as well **. Brogni is meaner to Rachel and Eleazar even though he really doesn’t need to be.
59: The last five minutes or so are the opera (and Halevy) at the peak of musical dramatic perfection ***. This moment, in which three of the six characters are damned, one (Eudoxie) has basically turned Atheist, and the others along with the chorus are in sheerly terrifying hate mode is just astounding (when it is performed uncut that is).
ACT 4: A Gothic Vault (seriously) near the Council Chambers. (40 minutes)
3: Unfortunately the last two acts are comparatively minor dramatically after the climax of the act three finale, but there is still lots to find in the last fifty minutes or so of the score. This act is divided into four numbers, the first of which is an interview duet between Rachel and Eudoxie in which the latter pleads with her rival and accuser to declare her husband innocent *. They realize that they equally love Leopold (why I don’t know because he’s been the ultimate jack-ass to both of them). This number is like much of Eudoxie’s music and is okay but I’m not personally not that happy with any of it as by this point I really don’t think Halevy found much inspiration in her. She leaves hoping for death but Rachel knows only she will die, as the Cardinal is announced.
12: Second: The Brogni-Rachel interview is a little better, but starts with some rather elementary orchestration (bang-bangs). It finally gets better with a rather nice melody accompanying Brogni as they seriously begin what is in fact (although they do not know it) a father-daughter duet **, although it is rather short and named a duettino.
17: Eleazar is brought in and he then has an interview (and full on duet) with Brogni. His entrance is rather grand. Brogni gives him the choice of death or conversion to Christianity. Eleazar immediately chooses death **. Eleazar reveals what we already know: Brogni’s family was killed and his palace burnt down during a Neapolitan invasion, but his daughter was actually taken in (alive) and raised as the daughter of a Jew. Brogni doesn’t seem to figure out what is the obvious (Eleazar is the Jew, Rachel is in fact Brogni’s daughter). Eleazar refuses to reveal where the daughter is, or who the Jew who rescued her might be.
30: Now what comes is probably one of the greatest, finest, tenor arias in French opera ***. At first Eleazar is remorseful, not for himself, but for Rachel. He knows he has the ability with one sentence to save her. It is a rare instance of a paternal tenor air and one truly comprehends the depths of Eleazar’s love for Rachel.
37: A chorus of Christians ready for anti-semitic burning are heard outside, Eleazar decides not to allow Rachel fall into the hands of the Christians who plot to murder them both and prays for martyrdom ** as he goes off to the execution.
ACT 5: A large pavilion used for executing people. (15 minutes)
0: The marche funebre ***. A series of jolly drinking choruses is actually how this act starts, mostly for filler purposes when it was performed at the Opera in Paris but most productions today ignore the number and move immediately until the execution scene with this rather amazing little orchestral piece. Rachel confesses to lying about Leopold and saved him from death, but eternal banishment is absolute. The Christians want to have the two Jews killed. Eleazar can not understand why Rachel has done this (neither can I as Leopold is more guilty than she is). The Christians then go on choral singing like Druids, this time frightening Rachel who feels that their words are like ice.
8: Rachel prays for death, Eleazar is conflicted, does he save her to live with gentiles or allow her a martyrs death ***.
11: He asks her, and she ends up prodding him on to death. As Rachel is led to the flames, Brogni asks Eleazar one last time where his daughter is. He says he knows: there! Just as Rachel is murdered and the Christians cry that they are avenged of the Jews Eleazar hurls himself to his death ***.
An excellent example of the genre of French grand opera, La Juive has always been difficult to interpret. For nearly 200 years now it has trivialized conductors, audiences, and just about anyone else who encounters it. What was Eugene Scribe trying to do with this story of inter-religious love, injustice, and death? Are the Christians the bad guys, is Eleazar? Is it an ironic exercise in Christian snow-flakery? Although it is Halevy’s masterpiece, it is not without its flaws. These are, however, not caused by the dramatic roles of Rachel or Eleazar (which are both brilliant) or even Brogni but by the leggere or light roles of Leopold and Eudoxie. Although Leopold does get some nice music in the first two acts and one does have sympathy for Eudoxie in the act 2 trio with Eleazar and Leopold and the act 3 finale when she is a betrayed wife, the rest of the time they both are rather despicable. Eudoxie’s interview with Rachel in which she begs to have Leopold’s life spared is the opera at the closest to rock bottom that it will ever get because it is both musically and dramatically stupid. Why does she want her cheating hubby to have his life spared? She offers Rachel nothing in return, and why on earth did she hire her at the start of act 3 in the first place? Eudoxie’s two (2!) arias in act 3 scene 1 are basically coloratura gargling and on their own rather worthless. Leopold is, although musically rather nice, dramatically a piece of human filth who thankfully disappears from the stage after act 3 only to haunt us in the words of the other characters from that moment on. But the rest of the opera is filled with stunning moments. Acts 2 and 5 in their entirety along with the act 3 finale and Eleazar’s immortal “Rachel, quand du seigneur” are utterly stunning and if Leopold’s back and forth in act 2 does seem dramatically idiotic. The only other moments I am not keen on, but which are still good, are the choruses in act 1 which to me smell of Christo-fascism. The Christians are basically either stupid (Brogni and Eudoxie) or evil (all the other Christians), which is a welcomed change from the likes of Gounod’s saccharine Faust with its diabetic pretensions. Here the religious intolerance is on display to a level only otherwise seen in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. This is slightly balanced by libretto references from Eleazar for his desire to have even more money (probably added in order to not make the work too obviously just not pro-Christian). Halevy, himself Jewish, donates a lot of love to the passover sequence at the start of act 2 and to the chorus of Jewish maidens in act 5. There is something to be said of this opera as a promoter of religious tolerance, and it mostly succeeds in its mission on that score. Ultimately it must be an A/A- for La Juive.