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Desecration or Sanctification

Ferruccio Furlanetto as Cardinal Brogni, Neil Shicoff as Eleazar, and Soile Isokoski as Rachel in Halevy's "La Juive."
Ferruccio Furlanetto as Cardinal Brogni, Neil Shicoff as Eleazar, and Soile Isokoski as Rachel in Halevy’s La Juive

The curtain rises to reveal a towering wall of translucent glass behind which the chorus sings “Te deum laudamus, You are God, we praise you,” to the provocative chords of the church organ. The massive presence of Christianity bears down on Eleazar and his daughter Rachel as they are accused by the hostile crowd of desecrating an Imperial celebration with the profane sound of his silversmith’s hammer. Eleazar, answers defiantly, “And why not? I am a son of Israel and the God of the Christians cannot command me!” Thus begins but the latest in a cycle of violent confrontations between fifteenth century Swiss Christians and the Jew Eleazar and his daughter that will lead the opera La Juive (The Jewess) to its tragic finale. Each side is seen as blindly driven by mutual hostility and suspicion. By the conclusion Eleazar is compelled to sacrifice his daughter’s life to quench an unrelenting hatred of the Cardinal Brogni who was responsible for the death of Eleazar’s two sons. Vengeance driven by intolerance is the poisoned well Christian and Jew alike drink from.

Neil Shicoff as Eleazar in HaLevy's La Juive Photo: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Neil Shicoff as Eleazar in HaLevy’s La Juive, photo: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera

The questions La Juive raises proliferate in the ground-breaking production this November at the Metropolitan Opera, the first at the Met since 1936. Is this early ninetieth century opera by Jacques Fromental Halevy, an assimilated Jew, a complete capitulation to Christian society and a regretful example of Jewish self-loathing; depicting the Jew as vengeful, greedy and lacking the most basic paternal emotions. Or alternatively it may be seen as a radically progressive work that was composed in a rare window of nineteenth century liberalism that challenges religious intolerance, showing each side as losers in a sea of hate. Certainly from any perspective the opera is a trenchant analysis of the deeply complex and compromised nature of the Jew in Christian society. This complexity makes this classic a presciently modern work.

The production opts for a thoroughly contemporary presentation. Even though it is set in Constance, Switzerland in 1414, Eleazar and Rachel wear the costumes of today’s religious Jews. The cardinal is dressed in the timeless Catholic red religious garb while the town’s citizens are anachronistically dressed in brilliant white Swiss peasant costume. The confrontation in Act I is initiated by defacement of Eleazar’s shop door with a Jewish star. In the ensuing scuffle he is pushed against the door and thereafter wears the Star of David crudely inscribed on his back. The echoes of Kristallnacht and the pious hate of dutiful Germanic populace are unmistakable. Equally inflammatory is Eleazar’s rigid rejection of the Cardinal’s attempt at reconciliation even as the Cardinal protects him and his daughter from the vicious mob. Stubbornly Eleazar proclaims, “This late repentance cannot quench my thirst for vengeance…” In contrast the Cardinal expresses “Christian” mercy “if harshness, ah! and vengeance their hate and of us inspire, Let kindness then and pardon direct their hearts to God!” A pious man of God struggles with the stubborn Jew.

Neil Shicoff as Eleazar, Soile Isokoski as Rachel, and Eric Cutler (on back) as Leopold in Halevy's "La Juive."
Neil Shicoff as Eleazar, Soile Isokoski as Rachel, and Eric Cutler (on back) as Leopold in Halevy’s La Juive

The character of the “stubborn Jew Eleazar” is played with a complex passion by veteran Met tenor, Neil Shicoff. Both his international status and extensive career have been influential in finally bringing this opera back to the Metropolitan Opera. Ever since it was written for the Paris Opera in 1835 La Juive has been an important standard in the repertoire, premiering at the Met in the 1880’s and becoming a mainstay of Enrico Caruso’s repertoire in the 1919-1920 season. He consulted rabbis and visited the Lower East Side as preparation for the role. Poignantly though, it was also his last appearance before his untimely death in 1921. The next great tenor of that age, Giovanni Martinelli, sang the final Eleazar at the Metropolitan in 1936. This production is from the Vienna Staatsoper, directed in 1998 by Gunter Kramer and features, besides Shicoff, the accomplished Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski as Rachel.

The set design and lighting of the remaining four acts of La Juive provides a fundamental vision of a world harshly divided between Jew and Christian. The Jewish world is below, dark and colorless. Above them is a massive raised stage that cuts a diagonal rising to the right. An enormous crystal chandelier lights the upper world, bespeaking the opulence and power of the Christian rulers.

The second act finds Eleazar, Rachel and her secret lover, Prince Leopold, who is disguised as Samuel, a Jew, at a Passover Seder. Shicoff performs the scene wearing a kittle and a tallis. This very tallis belonged to his father, the celebrated cantor Sidney Shicoff and lends an air of authentic religiosity to the character. Nevertheless, in spite of his own youthful experience as a cantor, he has determined not to sing the part with that inflection. Shicoff wants the opera to speak universally about intolerance and has shaped his role accordingly.

The Seder is interrupted by a knock at the door, in which the Princess Eudoxie enters from above in a blindingly white gown. The Jews hastily remove all traces of their Seder out of fear of the Christian ruler. She has arrived to purchase a jeweled pendant for her husband, Prince Leopold, who has returned triumphantly from battle. Eleazar promptly does business with her in spite of his bitterness declaring; “I trembled lest this woman discover all our secrets. How I did curse within my soul those Christians whom I hated. Yet how this beloved gold, will fill anew my life with pleasure! O’ happy prospect!” Surely one of the more obvious anti-Semitic depictions of the avaricious Jew seen on the operatic stage. This pivotal act further reveals that the disguised Samuel is in fact not Jewish, but is the Prince. Rachel and Leopold declare their forbidden love to the dismay and shock of Eleazar. The act comes to a dramatic conclusion as Leopold finally rejects Rachel and Eleazar bitterly proclaims; “Curse these Christians, and he who loves them…” The unremitting hate of Eleazar for the Christians is matched by the treachery and threatened physical violence of the Christian rulers. In Act I the Jew desecrates a Christian celebration while Act II matches it with the Princess disrupting the Jewish Seder. The poisoned well overflows.

The drama continues in the brightly lit upper world of the royal palace as Act III unfolds. An image of the court Jew, Eleazar has arrived bringing the jewelry he made for the Princess. Suddenly Rachel bursts out an accusation that the Prince has violated the prohibition of relations between Christian and Jew. Her jealous fury has condemned both her, her lover and her father. The Cardinal proclaims finally “You three have God outraged, be cursed, you! You three united horribly, be cursed! Anathema! Anathema! God Himself rejects you…” The prince is excommunicated and condemned. Eleazar is thrown down to the lower level where he consoles himself in prayer, wrapped in a talis and tefillin.

The anti-Semitic core of the opera is found in Act IV in which Eleazar divulges a terrible secret to Cardinal Brogni. First the Cardinal implores him to renounce his Judaism to save himself. He replies, “Renounce my father’s faith, to idols bow my knee! No, never! Rather death!” Then Eleazar reveals that the Cardinal’s daughter, thought murdered in the sack of Rome years earlier, was in fact saved by a Jew and is alive today. The Cardinal pleads but Eleazar refuses to disclose where she might be, proclaiming that “My secret dies with me!… I condemn you to eternal hatred, now I can gladly die.” Here the Jew is exercising the only power he has to strike out at his Christian enemy; Eleazar insists upon his own death. The opera has portrayed the Suicide Jew, wreaking vengeance with his own blood, in Neil Shicoff’s words, “He could be portraying a contemporary suicide bomber’s father.”

What follows is the most moving and perhaps redemptive aria in the entire opera; “Rachel, the Lord’s mercy placed you in my arms…” Reluctantly removing his jacket, his shoes and socks as he prepares for his own death, Shicoff has crafted this aria to echo a Holocaust scene before the deadly showers. Slowly and passionately pondering what he is about to do Shicoff’s rendition moves one to tears as the emotions of a loving father collide with hatred; “Rachel, It is I who now condemns you!” The crowd outside clamors for Jewish blood and finally he pleads with God to assist him and pardon him “When he gives her the crown of martyrdom.”

Finally the last act unveils the terrible fate of the accused Jews. Rachel recants her testimony against the Prince and he has been banished. Only Eleazar and Rachel face the boiling cauldron. Eleazar hesitates and asks Rachel if she is willing to die rather than convert to Christianity. Bravely she chooses to sanctify God’s Name. The Cardinal pleads with Eleazar one last time to reveal where his lost daughter is. Suddenly in a vision of hell unleashed a host of red robed Inquisition executioners rush on stage and hurl her into the fire as Eleazar triumphantly shouts, “It is her!”

Eleazar the Jew is a fanatic willing to avenge himself with the death of his own daughter even as Rachel, not Jewish by birth but by upbringing, is willing to sanctify the Name of God rather than convert. The Christians lust for the blood of the Jews and pervert their own justice. No one wins in La Juive, they all choke on the blood they seek. The underlying anti-Semitism and complexity of corrosive hate and intolerance has drawn audiences and artists to this opera over one hundred and sixty eight years. Perhaps its genius is that it does not provide answers but poses intractable questions that still plague us today.

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