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A Very Dark "La Juive" at the Bastille

Posted: Tue Feb 20, 2007 8:38 am
by Ralph
Paris Bastille Strike Cloaks `La Juive' Premiere in Darkness

By Jorg von Uthmann

Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) -- The revival of Halevy's ``La Juive'' at the Paris Opera, after an absence of 73 years, started with a bewildering opening night.

The stage was shrouded in various degrees of darkness. At the end, director Pierre Audi and his team didn't appear at the curtain calls.

This was not an artistic choice. The Paris Opera has lots of overpaid, underemployed grumps backstage. We were witnessing a strike of the lighting technicians.

The French unions have a knack for picking sensitive dates for their walkouts. Last April, they delayed the world premiere of ``Adriana Mater,'' a Finnish opera, in the same house. This time, the management decided not to postpone the eagerly awaited resurrection of Halevy's 1835 epic about a Christian girl who is brought up as a Jew and is condemned to death because of a love affair with a Christian.

The audience didn't seem to mind the crepuscular atmosphere and gave everybody a big hand.

In the 19th century, ``La Juive'' was a staple at the Paris Opera, clocking up nearly 600 performances. Some attribute its disappearance from the repertory to the Dreyfus Affair and growing anti-Semitism in France.

This is beside the point. In fact, Eleazar is a character in the Shylock mold and hardly the type to shake racists out of their prejudices.

No Masterwork

If it was the intention of the revival to prove that the world had unjustly neglected a masterpiece, it failed. Apart from two catchy tunes, well known to record collectors, there is much dead wood here and little that stays in the mind -- not enough for an evening of well over four hours, without the ballet which was thankfully cut.

At no point can Halevy hold a candle to his son-in-law, Georges Bizet and his brainchild ``Carmen,'' another victim of macho posturing.

Audi has resisted the temptation to update the opera and stress its topicality -- the clash between different brands of religious fanaticism. There are no Nazi uniforms onstage, nor is Eleazar, who sacrifices his life to avenge himself on his enemy, portrayed as a Palestinian suicide bomber.

Instead, Audi and his set designer George Tsypin have opted for a sober, almost abstract metal structure which, varying from one act to the other, looks like a railway station, a prison or an early stage of the Eiffel tower.

Period Armor

The costumes are modern. Eleazar is dressed like a Hasidic dealer on New York's Diamond Row. Only the armor of the soldiers points to the period of the drama -- the council of Constance (1414-18), which tried the religious reformer John Hus and burned him at the stake.

In the opera, Rachel is supposed to end in a boiling cauldron. At the Bastille, she and Eleazar walk into a field of huge crystals that glow red. Did a non-unionized helper switch it on?

Tenor Neil Shicoff, who has never had a conventionally beautiful voice, is definitely past his prime. Yet his dramatic intensity carries him through the evening, and his plaintive ``Rachel, quand du Seigneur,'' was greeted with an ovation.

Robert Lloyd, another veteran of the stage, sings Cardinal Brogni, Eleazar's nemesis, with warmth and authority.

Anna Caterina Antonacci is a passionate Rachel, the cardinal's daughter who falsely believes to be Jewish, occasionally bordering on shrillness. Annick Massis might not have an ideally rounded voice, yet gives a bravura performance of Rachel's rival, Princess Eudoxie.

The weak link in the cast is Leopold, the man between the two women: John Osborn is a tenorino with a tinny top.

Daniel Oren conducts with unobtrusive efficiency.

``La Juive'' is in repertory at the Opera Bastille, Paris, through March 20.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jorg von Uthmann at .
Last Updated: February 20, 2007 00:07 EST