The Opera van Vlaanderen staged La Juive by Fromental Haléy. This grand opera follows the fortune of other grand opera such as Guillaume Tell and Les Huguenots. One enters with mixed feeling into the opera house seeing heavily armed police at the entrance doors. In 1830 Europe other countries were equally careful, albeit for different reasons, such as Italy, where staging a cardinal was unthinkable. It is therefore surprising, how easy it was, at the first staging of the opera (and how marginally the local press touched the socio-political topic in a Paris, which went through all the horrors of religious wars and suppression), how easy it was, I was saying, to stage not only a whole council, but a plot which involves conflicting religions (present day problems then and now), horrible death sentences, and religious intolerance (from both sides).
At the first staging of the opera 23 February 1835 the setting was so magnificent, so spectacular, so outstanding that one could barely hear the music. Berlioz was present during that performance and wrote in his distinctive irony: “Malgré les efforts qu’on a faits pour empêcher d’entendre la partition, malgré le cliquetis de de toutes ces armures, ce piétinement de chevaux, ce tumulte populaire, ces volées de chloches et de canons, ces danses, ces tables chargés, ces fontaines de vin, malgré tout ce fracas anti-musical de l’Academie Royal de Musique, on a pu saisir quelques-une des inspirations du compositeur”, which, roughly translated reads as: “Despite the efforts that were made to prevent hearing the score , despite the rattling of armours, the trampling of horses, the crowd’s tumult, the sound of bells and cannons , the dances , the loaded tables, the fountains of wine , despite all anti-musical racket of the Royal Academy of Music , one could grasp just a few of the composer’s inspirations.”
We certainly didn’t have this problem with the staging of the Opera van Vlaanderen. The scene is almost empty with just a few stairs in the first act, a table in the second act (to celebrate Jewish Passover) and a bed in the third. The choreography of the singers is conventionally silly: for eg while the chorus sings from the stalls at the end of act 1, the soloists just “act desperately” on a totally empty stage. Eudoxie is a hyperactive, alcoholic woman whom (in her first entry when she visits Eleazar to buy the “joyau magnifique”) we see waiving a bottle of champagne in one hand and a gun in the other. In the anathema of act three, cardinal Brogni tears the bed apart and throws the pillows to the Christians around them…. At the anathema!… A Cardinal!!… Throwing pillows!!!… One feels almost like praising the idea of the coloured hands: Christians have blue hands, Jews have yellow hands, sometimes they hide their hands in the pockets in order to hide their faith and the symbol is used throughout the opera, also in prison when Eudoxie comes to beg for Leopold’s life. Eudoxie and Rachel wash the colour off their hands and sing the stretta with “clean” hands to show that finally love and friendship are more important regardless which god you pray to. Not too bad as symbol, maybe a bit infantile, but bon…I’ve seen worse. But then the director messes up everything by making the two women whirl in circles, laughing like girls and roll on the stage like on a blooming meadow. While Leopold is being sentenced to death!… Circling like girls!!… Laughing!!! But these are just examples of an overall very disappointing and superficial interpretation. One word on the lights: it’s hard to enjoy the evening if one is constantly forced to move from the plot of the opera to the real world. Since the action often moves to the stalls, these were regularly lit with bright light. How disillusioning is it to see people pulling down their skirts suddenly realizing they are observed, to see people yawning, leaning into bored positions. Then again on stage at the end of act 4 some of the main singers were so badly lit, one could hardly see who was singing. And then some of the light just went off similarly when pushing a light switch at home.
Musically things went better. Roberto Saccà is a credible Eleazar, still able to move with his interpretation and he manages the range with ease and interprets the declamation passages well. Jean-Pierre Furlan had a less appealing timbre and a slightly stretched high voice but his interpretation was very moving.
Asmik Grigorian as Rachel has a lovely voice especially in the middle register. Sometimes her top notes sound stretched also, especially in the finale of act one and the musically marvelous duet with Léopold in Act II. Overall the singing was convincing in a murderous role which was created by nobody less than Cornélie Falcon (the first Valentine in Les Huguenots, just to name one). Gal James’ had a more cautious approach which made her low notes less vibrant and rich, but both rendered a touching Rachel.
I was personally put off by Nicole Chevalier’s Eudoxie due to the hyperactivity of the acting but she sang indeed very well with good top notes, agile passages and a rich middle register. As did Elena Gorchunova, with a more balanced interpretation. The big problem in this production was the Léopold part. While Randal Bills’ Leopold sounded muffled, Robert McPherson ‘s voice was unbearably throaty. Both of them are cast in Rossini ‘s Armida next season which, allow me, is inconceavable. Dmitry Ulyanov’s Brogni reached all the extremely low notes although his interpretation lacked in showing the ambivalent nature of the cardinal (which might be attributable to the director also), Toby Girling was an acceptable Ruggiero. The chorus sang the very impervious score extremely well.Tomas Netopil directed with much verve and motivation this far too rarely performed music. Verve which which was less obvious with Yannis Pouspourikas
Conductor-Tomas, Netopil (2/5), Yannis Pouspourikas (21/4, 2/5), Direction-Peter Konwitschny, setting-Johannes Leiacker, costumes-Johannes Leiacker, lights-Manfred Voss, Dramaturgy-Bettina Bartz, Luc Joosten, Rachel-Asmik Grigorian (21/4, 2/5) Gal James (6/5), Le Juif Éléazar-Roberto Saccà (21/4, 2/5) Jean-Pierre Furlan (6/5), Le Cardinal de Brogni-Dmitry Ulyanov, Léopold-Randall Bills (21/4, 2/5) Robert McPherson (6/5), La Princesse Eudoxie-Nicole Chevalier (21/4, 2/5) Elena Gurshova (6/5), Ruggiero-Toby Girling, Majordome-Thierry Vallier