The cardinal’s daughter

By FELICITY KAY
April 16, 2010 16:59

Halevy’s La Juive deals with one of grand opera’s pet subjects – the persecution of a minority by the Catholics.

3 minute read.



American tenor Neil Shicoff as Eleazar.

shicoff la juive 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

If Jacques Halevy were alive today to witness such events as the establishment of Israel, the Iranian threat and so on, who knows what groundbreaking masterpiece he might be inspired to write? One of his most famous works, La Juive, written in response to rising French and international anti-Semitism in the 19th century, will be performed at Tel Aviv’s Performing Arts Centre between April 13th- 28th.

In a plotline with many twists and turns, La Juive follows Jewish heroine Rachel falling in love with Samuel. After refusing to eat matza at a Passover Seder, Samuel confesses he is none other than Prince Leopold, and so is not only not Jewish but also the husband of Princess Eudoxie. The punishment for a Jewish-Christian romance is a death sentence for Rachel. A parallel plotline involves Rachel’s father Eleazar, a Jewish goldsmith and community leader, and the ongoing rivalry and hatred between himself and Cardinal Brogni, a government official. Unbeknownst to everyone but Eleazer, Rachel is the Cardinal’s long lost child, thought to have died in the Cardinal’s burning house when she was a baby, but who was in fact rescued by Eleazar and raised as his own daughter. Hence Rachel is not actually Jewish, and proudly marches to the gallows proudly in her ignorance.

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Perhaps reflecting the melting pot of the Jewish diaspora itself, the opera is to be performed in French, with Hebrew and English surtitles. This melange also extends to the ensemble itself: renowned Israeli conductor Daniel Oren will be leading a distinguished international cast including American tenor Neil Shicoff as Eleazar; and Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya and Armenian soprano Karine Babajanyan as Rachel, both in their company debuts. All performances also feature the Israeli Opera Chorus and the Israel Symphony Orchestra of Rishon LeZion. The production’s choreography was created by internationally respected Italian choreographer Renato Zanella.

Shicoff, who appears regularly with the New York Metropolitan Opera (where he starred in the 2003 production of La Juive) says that singing Eleazar in Tel Aviv is “a full circle for me. I grew up as a New York Jew, I have been in Berlin, Zurich, Vienna. We all are Jews, we all have centuries of weight on us, and we have all learned how to produce, how to create, how to move mountains. And [to play Eleazar] it’s the greatest thrill I will have.”

Regarding singing the final, most famous aria of the opera, Eleazar’s ‘Rachel, quand du Seigneur’ [‘Rachel, when the Lord’], Shicoff says, “This aria has an awful lot of images for me. I grew up with grandparents who had lost family in the Holocaust and I know how they lived afterwards... I feel that there are voices that need to speak through my voice. I surrender to that feeling and these images come true in that aria. It’s more than my own personal statement, it is the statement of many, many voices.”

It is perhaps a testimony to history repeating itself, albeit in different ways, that the issues raised by this work continue to be relevant today. Director David Pountney says of his production that “La Juive can obviously in some sense be tied simply to the depth of feeling which the depiction of a Jew discriminated against and tormented aroused in Halévy. But that is probably a rather 20th century perspective.


La Juive sits a little uneasily with our post-Holocaust sensibilities about the persecution of Jews. Can one turn that subject into a kind of “block-buster” whose modern day equivalent would be something like Avatar – the triumph of digital scenery over content? This was the aspect that lead us to re-locate La Juive into a world where the “prettiness” and sometimes triviality of the music was not something to apologise for or be embarrassed about, but was actually part of the horror.”

In order to provide audiences with a better understanding of the opera’s context, a half-hour lecture before each performance (in Hebrew) is provided, as well as a post-production discussion with members of the cast after certain performances.

La Juive runs at the Opera House in Tel Aviv until April 28. For more information: www.israel-opera.co.il


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