Monday, September 7, 2009

La Juive at DNO: A disappointing season opener in Amsterdam

Fromental Halévy (composer), Eugene Scribe (librettist)
La Juive (The Jewess)
4 September 2009, Het Muziektheater Amsterdam
directed by: Pierre Audi
Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest (Dutch Philharmonic Orchestra), conducted by Carlo Rizzi

Rachel - Angeles Blancas Gulin
Le Juif Éléazar - Dennis O’Neill
Léopold - John Osborn
La Princesse Eudoxie - Annick Massis
Le Cardinal Jean-François de Brogni - Alastair Miles

All producion photos displayed here are (c) DNO

A forgotten grand (and tragic) opera as a grand season opener, that must have been DNO's intention. And indeed, the cast they had assembled was more than up to the task, and so was the orchestra, conducted by Carlo Rizzi. I was very hopeful and enthusiastic (one might even say slightly hyper) when I went to the Muziektheater for La Juive's first night. If we fast forward about an hour, I am yawning. If we fast forward another hour, I am having a hard time to keep myself from bursting into uncontrolled laughter. If we fast forward yet another hour, I am frowning (which, in my case, can be a sign of an extremely pensive mood or just plain boredom. In this case, the latter). If we fast forward yet another hour, I am looking at my watch impatiently for Éléazar and his daughter to die already. So, what went wrong?

Éléazar (Dennis O'Neill) and Rachel (Angeles Blancas Gulín) spending some quality father-daughter time.

Let's start with the opera itself. It's grand (obviously). Halévy has put in everything you can imagine: A te deum, a ballet (which was unfortunately absent from this production), and a funeral march, just to name a few things. Rather a postmodern-ish (avant la lettre, of course) collage, one could say. Musically speaking, the opera isn't all bad. The melodies are quite easy on the ear, and here and there, there's pure musical beauty to be found. However, these musical strokes of genius are rare, and most of the time, the tunes simply don't stick. The length of the opera (4.5 hours, even with cuts!) doesn't help either: there's a constant struggle going on to keep the audience interested, and when the opera finally gets to "Rachel, quand du Seigneur" (one of its most popular arias), it's too little, too late.

"Darling dearest, I have a horrible secret to tell you!" - "What is it?" - "I'm a Christian!" - "Noooooo!"

However, in my opinion, we can't blame Halévy entirely for the opera's eventual - dare we say it? - mediocrity. Eugene Scribe has really delivered a shoddy libretto. The story can't be easily summarized, but I'll give it a try anyway: Éléazar is a Jew who hates Christians and is in turn hated by Christians. His daughter Rachel (who isn't really his daughter, but his archenemy the Cardinal's daughter, although nobody except for Éléazar knows this - the Cardinal thinks his daughter died in a fire, and the daughter is kept in a not so blissful ignorance for the entire length of the opera) is in love with a guy who is in love with her as well. Ah, the love story sounds familiar. Well, no: the guy Rachel is in love with is really some married Christian prince who likes to dress up as a Jew in order to get Rachel into his bed (while still having a happy marriage with princess Eudoxie on the side). At any rate, Rachel figures out he's a Christian. She doesn't exactly like that, and neither does her father, but they get his blessing to get married anyway. Then Prince Léopold suddenly runs off. Rachel follows him, and when she discovers she has only served as a cheap side dish, all hell breaks loose. Rachel accuses Léopold of having had relations with a Jewess (which, apparently, in 1414 Konstanz, meant a death sentence)! Léopold, Rachel and Éléazar (why Éléazar as well?!) are locked up and condemned to death. Rachel is visited in prison by Léopold's idiotically loyal wife, who begs Rachel to testify that Léopold is innocent of adultery (hmm... right). Rachel, out of sheer love for this enigmatic player, agrees to do it, and Léopold is let off the hook. The cardinal wants to show some mercy to Rachel (with whom he feels an incomprehensibly vague connection) and Éléazar, if only Éléazar converts to Christianity. Éléazar refuses, so he ends up facing his death by means of a pot with cooking oil, but not before he has told the cardinal that the girl that just stepped into the oil before him was actually the cardinal's daughter.

Rachel discovers a nasty secret about the fiancé she was about to run off with.

At any rate, the story has some Merchant of Venice-like potential, if treated well in the Libretto-writing process. Scribe has really messed up in this respect. The characters don't think, don't explore their own psyches. They just blurt out random things. For instance, at moments of life or death, they spiral into theological discussions (or rather, statements): "Mais le Dieu qui t'appelle est un Dieu redoutable!" - "Non, le Dieu de Jacob est le seul véritable!"("But the God that calls you is a vengeful God!" - "No, the God of Jacob is the only real God!" - and so on, and so on). It may be very interesting as a depiction of (even 21st-century) religious extremism, but dramatically speaking it's incredibly boring.

The set designer seems to have been drunk.

Éléazar surrounded by Martians.

Unfortunately, the Audi production only aggravates the tediousness of the opera. Let's not even discuss the sets (I cannot even fathom what it was supposed to represent - two bridge-like constructions adorned with crystal-like stalactites drooping down from them?), or try to understand why martians and other aliens crowded the stage. I don't hate modern productions, I just hate it when modern productions turn into incomprehensible travesties while the director remarks dry-eyed that everything is constructed around one central idea (in the case of La Juive, intolerance).

Furthermore, this production hinged on static poses (probably also meant to express the central idea of intolerance somehow). So, it all boiled down to having to watch a more or less static image for 4.5 hours, which, in this case, was horribly dull. Not that it was the singers' fault - especially Angeles Blancas Gulín (Rachel) managed to make the most out of the static poses Audi had put her in. And I know, from seeing her as Lucia in Rome, that Annick Massis (Eudoxie) can act as though it is the most natural thing in the world. At any rate, the staticity of this production was what really turned La Juive into a stale and utterly dull opera: it only highlighted how flat and uninteresting the characters of La Juive really are.

And that is a pity, because the singers really sang beautifully. Annick Massis' amazing vocal acrobatics were incredible, Angeles Blancas Gulín really impressed with the passion she managed to convey through her voice, John Osborn - with all high notes in place - delivered magnificently as well. Alistair Miles as the Cardinal - with all low notes in place - was a bit shaky here and there, but gave an overall solid performance as well. I am in two minds about Dennis O'Neill, who really sang passionately and in tune (as he is supposed to do, obviously), but had to gasp for air mid-aria a couple of times.

All in all, an ambitious season opener that fell horribly flat, partly due to the opera itself, and partly due to the staging that managed to highlight all the opera's flaws. So, better luck next time, I hope, when DNO stages Dido and Aeneas.