‘La Juive’ for the Jews

The Israeli Opera’s new production has serious anti-Semitic overtones, which British director David Pountney calls "a strange element of my work here."

david pountney 311 (photo credit: Karl Forster)
david pountney 311
(photo credit: Karl Forster)
While no one could rightly accuse David Pountney of cultivating a penchant for the bizarre, his artistic choices often tend to stray some distance beyond the confines of the beaten path. That said, his project in progress is sure to ring a bell with his audiences here.  Oxford, England-born Pountney, 62, is currently here to direct a new production of La Juive, an opera written by the relatively little-known early 19th-century French Jewish composer Fromental Halévy, which runs at the Opera House in Tel Aviv until April 30.
Not generally viewed as a full member of the pantheon of front-rank operatic composers, Halévy was born in Paris in 1799. His German-born father, Elie Halfon Halévy, led a busy working life, concurrently earning a living as a cantor, secretary of the local Jewish community and as a writer and a Hebrew teacher. Halévy didn’t exactly burst onto the opera scene, although at 21 he was commissioned to write Marche Funebre et De Profundis en Hebreu (Funeral March from the Depths in Hebrew), for a three-part choir, tenor and orchestra. He also drew varying degrees of praise from some of the leading artistic lights of the day, including essayist and journalist Heinrich Heine, who considered Halévy’s music to be “free of the faults or errors that sometimes occur in the works of an original genius... [It is] agreeable, beautiful, respectable, academic and classic.”
Meanwhile, literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve noted that Halévy “was like a bee who, having found himself not wholly at home in the hive, was in search of some place outside where he could make his honey.”
That, along with Halévy’s Jewish roots, may go some way to explaining the theme of La Juive, which he wrote in 1835. His first – and, it may be said, only – major triumph, La Juive was to become one of the cornerstones of the French repertory for a century, with the role of Eleazar one of the great favorites of tenors such as Enrico Caruso.
The opera, originally set in the 15th century, tells the story of Eleazar, an Italian Jew, who is banished and forced to flee to Switzerland. He ends up in Constance, on the border with Germany, where, between 1414 and 1418, an ecumenical council convened to try to heal divisions within the Church that had left three popes, based in Rome, Avignon and Pisa, competing for supremacy.
Against that historical backdrop La Juive features an impossible love liaison between Eleazar’s adopted daughter Rachel and Prince Leopold, a distinguished member of the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, who proffers himself to Rachel in the guise of a Jewish painter.
Skipping to the end of the fifth and last act, in the original script Eleazar and Rachel are eventually sentenced to death, but are told they will be spared if they convert to Christianity. They refuse and they jump to their deaths while onlookers merrily chant: “It is done and we are avenged on the Jews!”
While the sentiment is clearly sustained, Pountney’s rendition is snugly transported almost five centuries forward and is set at the time of the Dreyfus affair, in the late 19th century.
POUNTNEY SAYS that directing La Juive in this country, with the work’s obvious social and racial undertones, is something of a special juncture in his four-decade career.
“It is a sort of peculiar experience, because there is obviously a lot of quite virulent anti-Semitism in the piece. There I am conducting a chorus of Israelis to say, basically: ‘Push the Jews into the lake’ or, as they say in the penultimate number of the piece: ‘Hooray hooray today’s a holiday; we can go and watch the Jews boiling in oil.’ That’s a bit like a version of the Bernstein chorus in Candide: ‘What a day, what a day for an auto da fé.’ That’s a strange element of my work here.”
Pountney feels, however, that La Juive is a powerful enough opera to be able to move audiences regardless of their cultural or religious affiliations. Indeed it has been described as one of the pioneers of the grand opera category in which the musical score was presented in a highly dramatic and graphic manner, and close attention was paid to the relationship between the music and the on-stage visuals.
“I think the piece always makes a big impact on an audience, and not necessarily a Jewish audience, so I think it will have a big impact here because that feeling is even closer.”
Considering the emotive subject matter, one wonders whether Pountney is at all wary of eliciting some strong responses from Israeli patrons. In fact, he doesn’t seem to be pulling any punches.
“Because of the French content and the very specifically French nature of the music, I’ve set it at the time of the Dreyfus affair. Quite a lot of the imagery, the specifically anti-Semitic imagery that is used in the production, is authentic from the times, so it’s real on the nose French anti-Semitic cartoons and such like. It’s actually pretty horrific when you look at it closely and you realize that this was produced by an apparently civilized and sophisticated nation.”
Pountney, who studied history at Cambridge University, reveals something of a neat “ulterior” motive behind his choice of the production’s chronological context. “Of course, curiously enough, the Dreyfus affair plays quite a role in the foundation of Israel, because [Theodor] Herzl got the whole idea [of a Jewish state] from the event, because he thought that if even the French can behave like this, there is really no hope and we have just have to all get out and go somewhere else. So the approach to this production all connects well with contemporary Israel.”
A GLIMPSE at Pountney’s bulging résumé indicates a tendency to go for stories that highlight the plight of the downtrodden, be it racial discrimination or some other form of persecution. Pountney attributes that element of his work to the history of the genre rather than to some professional or personal preference.
“Downtrodden people are a major theme of 19th-century operas. That is also partly because nationalism was a major theme of 19th-century operas, and many nations who were not then nations, for instance the Czechs, were striving for some form of independence or freedom, and this was put into music and particularly into opera. There is, for example, [Verdi’s] the Nabucco chorus [of the Hebrew slaves] which is very famous. This was quite a common theme in 19th-century pieces, and this was at a time when nationalism tended to mean something left [wing] rather than right [wing]. It’s sort of migrated to where it is now which, I guess, is right rather than left. Perhaps, ironically, that applies to Israel too.”
Pountney says his academic training has influenced his path through the operatic genre. “Studying history has made me very aware of the political content of operas. Opera is very often a very political art form, and it encapsulates a lot of political ideas. Even the whole idea of grand opera is, to some extent, the relationship between your duties to the state and your duties to yourself or to another person. So there is often a conflict embodied in these pieces. Take, for example, [Verdi’s] Aida and the conflict in which [the captain of the guard] Radames falls in love with a slave from an enemy nation. Is he serving his nation or his passion? That’s a very typical theme.”
As an opera director part of Pountney’s job is to find and maintain a healthy and dynamic equilibrium between the visual and aural components of the show. He says he favors a gradually evolving process before getting down to brass tacks. “I try to become familiar with a piece in a sort of a background kind of way. I let it play in the background so I can absorb it without thinking too much about it until, at a certain point, I will sit down and actually study it. Then you wait for associative ideas to crop up.”
That apparently worked well for Pountney with La Juive, and led to a commensurately alternate stage setting. “In this piece there’s a clear political upstairs-downstairs aspect. We have this Jewish jeweler’s workshop, at one level, and at the other level we have the highest echelons of society – a princess, a prince and a cardinal, and all the representatives of established power. So I tried to devise a set which enables one to move rather fluidly between these two spaces, which is why we are using a revolving unit.”
While some opera directors may allow their audiences to do some of the work themselves, and complete the picture with their own imagination, it sounds like Pountney prefers the spell-it-out approach.
“Music is an abstract language,” he explains. “In fact, strictly speaking, music has no meaning outside the music. Of course we all put our own meaning onto music in various ways, so people sometimes get offended when I say music has no meaning, but that is the truth.”
Then again, there are musical forms that are written specifically to elicit an emotional response from the listener. “Yes, apart from the usual things, like marches, the music normally has to have text, because otherwise you’re not clear on what sort of response you’re trying to get. So I think you can say the text is one level of meaning you attach to the music, and then you attach to it an image. That’s another way of defining in which space the music is to be heard.”
Pountney says he believes in a mixed sensory attack and that the balance of power between the visual and the aural content of the production can shift. “I think that a successful stage picture for an opera is something that allows you to see with your ears and hear with your eyes. There can be a conflicting dialogue between the music and the stage setting; it doesn’t always have to be the same thing. In fact I think it’s often a mistake to try to repeat the music in some visual form. I judge that in each case on its own merit.”
THERE APPEARS to be a clear oxymoronic thread running through La Juive, and Pountney’s take on it. “One of the things that interested me about this piece, and also about the Dreyfus period, is that it immediately sets it in a world which is very elegant and very dressed up, you know the world which we would normally associate with a BBC costume drama. You see all these nice people in these beautiful frocks behaving very unpleasantly and that’s an interesting resonance – people who look like they might be in a Jane Austen play turning out to be kicking Jews on the ground.”
Therein lies a strong social comment. “There’s a surprise factor in that being anti-Jewish or violent is not something confined to rednecks or glowering Nazis, that can include elegant French officers too.”
Pountney’s down-to-earth ethos may have something to do with his hands-on training in the trade. “I directed my first opera at the age of 20. When I was a student at Cambridge, I did nine operas altogether.”
Opera was a natural choice for the young Pountney and, after discovering his vocation, he jumped straight in at the deep end. “I was a choirboy and I played the trumpet and I was always interested in theater, so combining music and theater was something very natural for me. There’s a wonderful tiny theater in Cambridge, called the ADC Theatre, and my first opera was something by Scarlatti, a baroque piece, and I’m sure we made thousands of mistakes, but that was a start. I’ve never studied directing operas, I just learned by doing, which is probably the best way.”
Those early days were also spent poring over as many works as Pountney could find. “I acquired an immense storeroom of knowledge of operas back then, and that has sustained me all the way through my life,” he states. “That means I know a lot of repertoire that people don’t normally know, so it’s always been interesting for me to explore the unusual pieces.”
Which brings us to La Juive and to other rarely performed operas which Pountney has championed. “That led me to, for example, [Czech composer Leos] Janacek. I did a lot of proselytizing for Janacek. My first professional opera production, in 1972, was a Janacek opera – that was Katya Kabanova.”
And as artistic director of the annual Bregenz Festival in Austria, he has introduced European audiences to a number of infrequently performed operas. “This year we’re doing a huge retrospective of someone who I think will turn out to be a very important composer, that’s a completely forgotten Polish Jewish composer called Mieczyslaw Weinberg.”
The Weinberg section of the festival includes a performance of The Passenger/Die Passagierin which is based on a novel by Polish Holocaust survivor Zofia Posmysz.
“Weinberg fled into the Soviet Union in 1939, and was also persecutedthere as a Jew,” Pountney continues. “I’ve always been interested inopening up doors and allowing people to enjoy works and composers thathave been forgotten.”
For tickets and more information about the current performances of La Juive, call (03) 692-7777 or go to www.israel-opera.co.il.