Watching an Orthodox Jew walking down the Keyserlei, a street packed with jewellers, it struck me that Antwerp, with its prolific diamond trade, would be a good setting for Fromental Halévy's opera La Juive. The Jew Éléazar is “un orfevre joaillier” – a goldsmith-jeweller – by trade, whose noisy hammering of metalwork during a religious festival outrages the Christians. How did I know the gentleman I passed was Jewish? The broad-rimmed hat, the payot (sidelocks), the long black coat. But director Peter Konwitschny, reviving his production of La Juive for Opera Vlaanderen in Antwerp, dispenses with most religious symbolism.

Corinne Winters (Rachel) and Ray Cornelius Smith (Éléazar) © Opera Ballet Vlaanderen
Corinne Winters (Rachel) and Ray Cornelius Smith (Éléazar)
© Opera Ballet Vlaanderen

There are no kippahs or Stars of David for the Jews, no crosses for the Christians. A stained-glass rose-window dominates the rear of Johannes Leiacker's simple set which consists of scaffolding made from neon-lit tubing which frames the stage. Cardinal Brogni wears a simple dog-collar, Éléazar breaks matzah at Pesach, but otherwise the only visible sign that distinguishes the religions is hand colour – painted yellow for the Jews, blue for the Christians. When Princess Eudoxie visits Rachel – the Jewess of the opera's title – in prison, hoping to persuade her to withdraw her allegations that she was seduced by the princess' husband, they wash hands together. Scrubbing away the paint in a prison bucket, they come to the moving realisation that they are no different from one another. It's a poignant moment of truth from Konwitschny in a production which explores intolerance and hatred.

<i>La Juive</i> © Opera Ballet Vlaanderen
La Juive
© Opera Ballet Vlaanderen

The Christian baiting of the Jewish father and daughter is deliberately uncomfortable. They are dressed up in bishop's robes and Santa Claus costume before being dunked in a bathtub of shredded blue tissue paper. The chorus invades the stalls to jeer at Éléazar and Rachel, handing the audience blue flags to wave, making us complicit in their humiliation. As they head to their execution, dressed in bridal gown and white morning suit, the crowd grows impatient at Brogni's intervention. “Just kill the dirty fucking Jews!” cries one chorus member in English. Mob mentality reigns. It's only when Rachel reaches the top of the staircase and is about to plunge to her death that Éléazar reveals his secret – she is Brogni's daughter, believed to have died in a fire as an infant.

Konwitschny makes sure it's not one way traffic. Éléazar is presented as both petty and greedy: he knows his hammering will antagonise the Christians, which only makes him do it all the louder; and he happily accepts a suitcase of banknotes for the jewel-studded golden chain Eudoxie commissions for her husband, Léopold, even though he's just broken Rachel's heart. Rachel, for her part, turns suicide bomber when she discovers Léopold's deceit, opening her trench coat to reveal a belt of explosives. Act 3 ends with everyone – yellow hands, blue hands, red hands, green hands – packing dynamite in a munitions factory conveyor belt. The message rings loud and clear: regardless of creed or colour, we've all contributed to this mess.

Riccardo Zanellato (Brogni), Corinne Winters, Nicole Chevalier (Eudoxie), Enea Scala (Léopold) © Opera Ballet Vlaanderen
Riccardo Zanellato (Brogni), Corinne Winters, Nicole Chevalier (Eudoxie), Enea Scala (Léopold)
© Opera Ballet Vlaanderen

A terrific cast has been assembled, with some singers reviving roles. Roy Cornelius Smith was a late step-in as Éléazar and sang with power and sincerity, although his tenor often sounds throaty. His moving aria “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” was delivered from the Stalls – a favourite Konwitschny device which, although it makes an impact on those being eye-balled, risks alienating audience members with limited sightlines.

Corinne Winters made a magnificent role debut as Rachel, the burnished, purple shades of her lower register gorgeous in the romance “Il va venir”, also partly sung in the Stalls. Her confrontation with Léopold, when he confesses that he is not “Samuel”, but a Christian – sizzled with disbelief and scorn across the pit, although there was humour too; during one of his fortissimo declarations, Winters turned to an audience member and tutted, “Tenors!”

Corinne Winters (Rachel) and Nicole Chevalier (Eudoxie) © Opera Ballet Vlaanderen
Corinne Winters (Rachel) and Nicole Chevalier (Eudoxie)
© Opera Ballet Vlaanderen

But what a tenor! Enea Scala's has real “ping” – you can tell Rossini is his meat-and-drink – scaling the vocal heights with ease. Nicole Chevalier was witty and wonderful as his wife, Eudoxie, initially presented as a drunk, all fur coat and no knickers, she played up to the role with shrewd comic timing. Vocally, her breezier soprano contrasted well with Winters, blending well in their prison duet. What a shame that Konwitschny cuts her boléro. Riccardo Zanellato's smoky bass made for a dignified Brogni, until Éléazar's goading turns him desperate to discover the truth about his daughter.

Antonino Fogliani drove the Vlaanderen orchestra in an impassioned performance, despite a few horn flaws, while the vehemence of the Chorus was truly unsettling. But then, a strong production of La Juive should leave you rattled. Job done.

****1