La Juive

About this work

The premiere of La Juive, on February 23, 1835, was the most opulent and grand of any production of the Paris Opéra up to that time. Critics and public marveled at the accuracy with which the scenes and costumes re-created fifteenth century courts and churches. The knights, it was reported, had on real armor, and the Emperor was covered in glittering ingots of gold. Every historical detail of costume and setting was closely followed.

The libretto, by Eugène Scribe, sets a story of love between two central characters (Rachel and Léopold) against a backdrop of religious, political, and personal conflict. This libretto, along with the one Scribe provided for Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, would help to change the course of French grand opera. Crowd scenes and themes of political conflict focused attention on issues of social unrest, bigotry, persecution, and class status. In these dramas, individuals were diminished and their surrounding social forces brought to life, embodied by the crowd. Obvious machinations of plot are employed to bring music to the forefront; realism is sacrificed in the interest of spectacle and drama on the grandest of scales. The result was a grand opera just as resplendent as those of the past, but one filled with modern social awareness.

Halévy's expansive score matches the splendor of the story with grand music, impassioned and passionate. The opera was greatly admired by Mahler, Berlioz, and Richard Wagner, who overcame his anti-Semitism temporarily in order to be inspired by Halévy's music and sense of drama. The story of the opera gave Halévy plenty of opportunity to write large dramatic tableaux. There is an angry, intolerant crowd in the first act, and a Passover seder in the second. Act Three contains celebrations in honor of the Emperor Léopold that make use of chorus, pantomime, and ballet. The spectacular festivities are interrupted by the dramatic high point of the story, in which Rachel denounces the Emperor in front of his entire court for having courted her, a Jew, for marriage. In the final act, a chorus of bloodthirsty townspeople, who are anticipating the execution of Rachel and her father because of the denouncement, contains some of the finest and most dramatic music of the opera.

Act Four closes with the most famous number in the opera, a solo for the hero Eléazar (Rachel's father): he contemplates sacrificing Rachel for the sake of his own revenge against the Cardinal, a powerful persecutor of the Jews. English horns and bass pizzicati give a Semitic flavor to the orchestration, as does the melodic use of augmented seconds. Here, Eléazar stands as a quintessential hero of French grand opera -- both savior and demon, loyal father and fanatic -- as his torn psyche is brought to life in this aria.