Is Lust Also Blind?
Sam Shirakawa was recently in Amsterdam where he caught a performance of Halévy's La Juive:
HALÉVY - LA JUIVE
NEDERLANDSE OPERA, AMSTERDAM
12 SEPTEMBER 2009
(see a video clip)
For some reason, the opera world has seen a revival resurgence in recent years of Halévy’s La Juive -- possibly because the number of competent singers willing to take on the four demanding principal roles has increased. The opera was a triumph for Caruso, when the Met mounted a new production for him in 1919. According to the Met archives, Eleazar proved to be his final appearance at the House.
Following World War II, Juive was seldom performed anywhere until the turn of this century. Currently, it can be heard in a surprisingly well-cast production at the Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. Dennis O’Neill is a superb Eleazar. His voice has darkened with maturity, but it has retained its balance between registers. He fires off those killer top notes will little sign of effort, and his grasp of that elusive Gallic style is impeccable.
O’Neill unfortunately has also put on quite a bit of weight -- much more girth than required for even the heaviest roles. While he nimbly scales the stairways to the upper level of the set, the burden he bears is bound to take a toll--at least on his legs.
The surprise find of the performance I heard on 12 September was Angeles Blanca Gulin. Of the three Rachel’s I have heard, she by far is the most dynamic; captivating pianissimi, bracing high notes, an intense stage personality. Plus a big instrument with a tight vibrato under pressure. (NOTE: This is not the soprano of the same first and surname, who had an estimable international career in the 1970s and 1980s. But I must confess to detecting a faint similarity in the timbre of the middle and upper registers.)
American John Osborn as Leopold/Samuel took a bit to warm up, but eventually produced a solid, sympathetic Leopold/Samuel. I would caution him to refrain from taking the part often.
Alastair Miles in the role of Cardinal Brogni balanced his thin low notes with a ringing middle and upper register. But the Vatican enforcer is not really suited to him.
I quite liked Annick Massis when she debuted at the Met as Lucia in 2002. I am not so mad about her Princess Eudoxie in Amsterdam. The notes were all there, but her heart appeared to be elsewhere.
Carlo Rizzi led a clearly focused traversal of the score and drew some excellent playing from the Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest.
Pierre Audi’s staging was hampered by the constricted playing space imposed by George Tsypin’s massive chrome girders, built on three levels. A layer of grates carpeting his stage floor clattered relentlessly every time the singers made a move.
La Juive has lots of pretty music that’s also challenging to the prinicipal singers. But it also labors under a libretto that strains credibility. A major part of the plot, for example, hinges on Leopold’s confession to his lover Rachel, who is Jewish, that he is not. If they are lovers, wouldn’t she have drawn the hood from his secret long before the opera began? If love is blind, is carnal lust then borgne?
It has been some years since I visited Amsterdam, and it was comforting to find that most of the central district of the city remains architecturally unchanged. Het Muziektheater, which Nederlandse Opera calls home, seats about 1,600 spectators, distributed over a wide shallow parquet (17 rows) and two upper circles. The acoustics are bright with ample bass reverb. Its terrace overlooks a triangular plaza and one of Amsterdam’s wider canals. The people are as friendly and helpful as they always were. The food is another story. Cheap, tasty meals are hard to find. It was not always so.
© Sam H. Shirakawa