Sunday, September 4, 2011

Neil Shicoff: Halévy's La Juive (Rachel quand du Seigneur)



Neil Shicoff as Eléazar in La Juive (The Jewess) by Fromental Halévy. In Act 4, Eléazar sings the opera's most known aria, "Rachel quand du Seigneur." Here, Eléazar considers what he will do in the final act. Will he really be able to sacrifice his adopted daughter, Rachel, so as to keep her away from the hands of the Christians, who are his persecutors? If so, Léopold will lose the woman he loves, and Cardinal Brogni will lose his daughter, who, unknown to him, was saved from a fire by Eléazar when she was a child, before Brogni became a priest.

The opera returned to The Met, after an absence of 68 years, in 2003.

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Jacques-François Fromental Halévy was born to Elias Halfon Halévy and Julie Halevy (nee Meyer) on May 27, 1799, in Paris, France. His father was the secretary of the Jewish community of Paris, a writer and a teacher of Hebrew. The name Fromental, by which the composer was generally known, suggests that he was born on the feast-day of that name in the French Revolutionary calendar, operative at that time. He studied at the Conservatoire de Paris when he was ten, in 1809, thus becoming a pupil and later protégé of Luigi Cherubini.

La Juive,
Halévy's most known work and his crowning achievement, is a five-act grand opera with the French libretto written by Eugène Scribe. Halévy  started writing the composition in the fall of 1833. It was first performed at the Opéra Paris, on February 23, 1835. It was one of the most performed and admired opera of the 19th century. The opera was, not surprisingly, banned by the Nazis. It was not performed much after the Second World War, until Neil Shicoff's performance as Eléazar in Vienna. Austria, in 1999, helped increase its popularity.

The role of Éléazar became a favourite among tenors, including Enrico Caruso. It is about an impossible love affair between a Christian man and a Jewish woman, which evokes thoughts of religious tolerance to some and anti-clericalism and liberalism to others. It is no secret that Fromental Halévy and Eugène Scribe shared liberal values and wanted to see a diminishing influence of the Catholic Church on the lives of Europeans.

Admirers of this opera included Gustav Mahler, and, surprisingly, Richard Wagner. (The opera is set in Constance, Germany, during the Council of Constance in the year 1414. The synopsis of the opera can be found here.)

Again, we return to the famous scene of the opera, as described by one critic, George Jellinek, who was a long-time host of a weekly radio program on opera:
His adopted daughter, the trusting and devoted Rachel (echoes of Scott’s Rebecca) commits the mortal sin of consorting with a Christian prince in disguise (possibly modeled on Hugo’s Francois I). Éléazar could save her by revealing that she was born a Christian, were it not for his implacable hatred of Cardinal Brogni, Rachel’s biological father, and the church authorities he represents. Except for Rachel, none of the characters emerges in a sympathetic light, and the opera ends with the gruesome death of Rachel and Éléazar.
Tragic, yes. Lacking sympathy, arguable. Allow me to put forward another view. Whether you view Éléazar as unsympathetic or not would depend on where your fidelities are strongest. Éléazar for many comes across as a fanatic, choosing religious faith over love for his adopted daughter. If so, the times in which he lived shaped him and (de)formed him in such a manner, leaving him no choice to make.

We must always be careful of chronological snobbery, judging previous ages by our standards. And, as always, we always think we would act differently in similar circumstances. But we can't truly know until we are put to the test. Such explains the tension, both in art and in real life.

Éléazar

Rachel, quand du Seigneur
La grâce tutélaire
A mes tremblantes mains confia ton berceau,
J'avais à ton bonheur
Voué ma vie entière.
Et c'est moi qui te livre au bourreau!
J'avais à ton bonheur
Voué ma vie entière,
Et c'est moi qui te livre au bourreau,
Et c'est moi qui te livre au bourreau!
Mais j'entends une voix qui me crie:
Sauvez-moi de la mort qui m'attend!
Je suis jeune et je tiens à la vie,
Ô mon père épargnez votre enfant,
Je suis jeune et je tiens à la vie,
Ô mon père, ô mon père, épargnez votre enfant!
Ah! Rachel, quand du Seigneur
La grâce tutélaire
A mes tremblantes mains confia ton berceau,
J'avais à ton bonheur
Voué ma vie entière.
Et c'est moi qui te livre au bourreau,
Et c'est moi qui te livre au bourreau!
Et c'est moi qui te livre au bourreau,
Rachel, je te livre au bourreau!
Rachel, c'est moi, moi,
moi qui te livre au bourreau!
Et d'un mot, et d'un mot arrêtant la sentence,
D'un mot arrêtant la sentence
Je puis te soustraire au trépas!
Ah! j'abjure à jamais ma vengeance,
J'abjure à jamais ma vengeance,
Rachel, non tu ne mourras pas!


Jacques-François Fromental Halévy [ 1799-1862]: Gustav Mahler said of La Juive: "I am absolutely overwhelmed by this wonderful, majestic work. I regard it as one of the greatest operas ever created."
Credit: Etienne Carjat: Done 1860-62. At the Harvard Art Museum.
Source: Wikipedia


2 comments:

  1. When I saw the opera at the Met in 2003, I felt that it was a de facto anti-Semitic opera. Why else would Wagner like it?
    It is nevertheless a beautiful and moving work which shows that Jews were persecuted.
    After Rachel's death, Eleazar tells Brogni, "She was your daughter." That's very much like the end of IL TROVATORE, when Azucena tells the Duke, "He was your brother; Mother, you are avenged."

    ReplyDelete
  2. Prof Jochnowitz:

    Yes, the fact that Wagner liked it is telling. Even so, the opera has much to reveal about intolerance, authoritarianism and good old-fashioned anti-Semitism and how such thinking shapes society.

    ReplyDelete

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