Tuesday, April 26, 2005

La Juive

I bought a copy of Halévy’s La Juive presented at the Wiener Staatsoper and have started to watch it. I know that it was part of Caruso’s basic repertoire at the Met. Indeed, it was during a run of La Juive that he died in 1920. The other thing it’s known for is the first use of valve horns and trumpets in 1835 – a fact to memorize.

The European solution to heresy has always been just to kill all the heretics. Protestantism survived because the political forces were simply too strong for the defenders of the catholic church to defeat. Europeans wonder over America even now. How can there be hundreds of religions, they ask? America is founded (even if Americans sometimes forget this) on the idea that your religion is your business. We believe deeply in letting everyone exist side by side with us. Our diversity is our one great strength. It’s why we are constantly trying to overthrow other assumptions that people take for granted. It’s what makes us us.

The Holy Roman Emperor has just finished massacring the members of a heresy, and everyone is looking around for others to persecute to make themselves feel better. Jews always make likely targets for people with this perspective. The general viewpoint is very shocking to us. Maybe WWII made this simply too hard to watch. Whatever the reason, the opera isn’t part of the standard repertoire any more. It is shocking to hear hatred so openly expressed.

The plot is similar to Il Trovatore – the persecutor turns out to be destroying his own daughter/brother. The false parent feels simultaneously sorrow and vengeance at the death of the child, a combination that feels like a perversion. The difference is that La Juive is about the hatred between Christians and Jews. The designer has chosen to emphasize this almost exclusively by dressing the Christians primarily in white and the Jews primarily in black. When transacting business, the Christians don’t cross over into the Jewish space. The production also emphasizes the religious elements by dressing the priest in his vestments and Eleazer in his prayer shawl. It’s stark and cruel and utterly unambiguous.

Also like Trovatore, a man from one side and a woman from the other fall in love, and this forbidden act is enough to create tragedy. The Christian man pretends to be a Jew, in this production merely by dressing in black. All that is necessary to show his bad intentions is to show him also dressed in white.

I am interested in this. The production should explain the opera, and this one is outstanding. It hardly matters that the crowds are in black and white dirndls and lederhosen. Ach! Isn’t that reason enough for moving a work to another era? Aren’t there already enough productions with dirndls and lederhosen? The Jews are dressed in ordinary suits and dresses.

It is good to see this opera, to remind ourselves of a world not quite gone. There is also a lot of nice melody you can really sink your teeth into, mainly for soprano and tenor. It is called a Grand Opera, but I see no ballet.


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