“Jew or Christian, we’ll share one fate.” So announce two lovers in a courageous act that resides in the hostile climate of religious discrimination when excommunication and worse, death, can befall them. Romantic dreams, however, fail to materialise in this barbed-wired world of intolerance, discrimination and vengeance.
Composed in the tradition of French grand opera, where well-tailored historical backdrops framed stories of human passions accompanied by ostentatious stage and musical spectacle, French-Jewish composer Fromental Halévy’s La Juive of 1835 is a mighty operatic experience to soak in and ponder on today’s terms.
La Juive, Opera Australia Chorus
Those hungry for the vocal and musical riches opera can bestow will be generously nourished by Opera Australia’s new production of this grand opera rarity, a co-production with Opéra National de Lyon. Formidably sung and conducted with immense kaleidoscopic drama and intensity by Italian conductor Carlo Montanaro, it is rightfully so a proud moment for the company after the unfortunate 2020 premiere postponement due to the Covid pandemic.
The story concerns the forbidden love between young Jewish woman Rachel (Natalie Aroyan) and the wealthy Christian Prince Léopold (Francisco Brito). When discovered, it all unravels with enormous tragic results. At first, Rachel believes Léopold is a Jew, a painter called Samuel, and unaware of his disguise and marriage to Princess Eudoxie (Esther Song). Rachel is also unaware that she is the daughter of Cardinal de Brogni, (David Parkin), saved from a fire when she was a baby by the Jewish father that raised her, Éléazar, (Diego Torre).
Originally set in Constance in the early 15th century (near the present day German-Swiss border), the 5-act libretto by respected author Eugène Scribe is one of more than 3 dozen libretti he penned for many established composers of the day. French director Olivier Py resets the action in 1930s France, a period that coincided with increased antisemitism in France and the disappearance of the opera’s long-held popularity.
Py is confronted with a complex, sometimes incredulously knitted narrative of coincidence to resolve, including having four of the principal characters ready to give up their life for one reason (or person) or another. The results are mixed. Despite the outpouring of wrought emotion and action in many scenes, a surprising amount of static stand-and-deliver stage compositions reduce the dramatic patina. And Py certainly isn’t assisted in the process by set and costume designer Pierre-André Weitz’s rather alienating stage-width staircase of 10 steps which challenge both intimate character and massed chorus moments. On the other hand, the company’s concurrent production of Otello, incorporating a far greater mass of stage-filling stairs is handled with enormous dramatic aplomb.
Diego Torre as Éléazar, Natalie Aroyan as Rachel and
Francisco Brito as Prince Léopold
Costumes clearly delineate each religious camp - Jews in suited charcoal but the pristine, muted palette uniformity of the Catholic majority, who revelled in their public demonstrations of “Le morte de les etrangers”, rarely feels right.
More success comes with the oft slow-moving background scenic elements of rudimentary timber frames, high walls of bookcases and a grove of charred barbed wire-like trees broodingly lit by lighting designer Bertrand Killy and evoking the darkness of the Holocaust’s dawn. A shocking rain of worn shoes crashing down when hope appears lost strikingly cements the association.
The passover celebration of Act 2 in Éléazar’s home provides the most dramatically fluid scene in which the depth of the stage is utilised while bringing a portion of the action to the stepped foreground, including the placement of two photographic portraits in front of a candelabra of Éléazar’s two sons murdered well before the action of the story begins by Brogni when a Count.
A few staging issues aside, nothing more could be desired from the splendid cast and Opera Australia Orchestra‘s flawlessly played, stirring and balanced soundscape under Montanaro’s helm.
Comfortably excelling at the height of their artistry, regular company principals Diego Torre and Natalie Aroyan portray the intricate father and daughter relationship of Éléazar and Rachel with impressively nuanced characterisation.
Diego Torre as Éléazar and men of the Opera Australia Chorus
Torre‘s vocal chiaroscuro and sculpted Italianate tenor flexes magnificently around Éléazar’s determination, defiance and vengeance. Torre is a commanding force in Act 2 and, for the opera's best known aria, Act 3’s "Rachel! Quand du seigneur", he bursts with inner pent up emotion to reveal the agonised man Éléazar is with deep vocal pathos, not wanting to sacrifice Rachel to his hatred of Christians and renouncing his revenge (though short-lived).
Aroyan is vocally breathtaking and expressive as she reveals Rachel’s unfolding nightmare and underlying sincerity and grace, balancing the demanding register shifts with seamless beauty while soaring with plushness up to a gleaming top.
As her questionable lover Samuel (Prince Léopold), Argentinian Francisco Brito exhibits both the earlier courage and later cowardice - or simply plain stupidity - of his character’s actions with a handsome and coruscating tenor. Most palpable is the chemistry Brito shares with Aroyan and the uneasiness of his disguise alongside Torre.
The discrimination and authority of the Church is realised in a sensational performance by David Parkin as Cardinal Brogni. Dispensing dark forbidding tones with quaking and richly resonant bass majesty, Parkin effortlessly embodies Brogni’s cold imperiousness and subsequent pleading heart to know from Éléazar what has become of his daughter.
As the haughty Princess Eudoxie, Esther Song is resplendent, her crystalline soprano and assured ornamentation a wonderful mirroring counterpart to Aroyan’s Rachel.
Andrew Moran gives powerful agency and presence to the smaller role of the brutish Ruggiero. Richard Anderson is similarly effective as Albert and the Opera Australia Chorus, a significant presence throughout and surging in world-class form, create stunning textures and undulating momentum.
It is not as if religious discrimination and persecution has been shelved only in the past. Halévy’s grandiloquent work contains substance still today that serves to remind us of these injustices. Thanks to Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini’s desire to see this work to the stage, his audience will be unequivocally rewarded.
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 26th March 2022
Production Photos: Prudence Upton