When Lars Cleveman’s tragic Éleazar celebrates the Sabbath in La Juive, he performs a ritual which connects the present to the moment in the early 19th century when the opera was composed; a ritual which encapsulates 2000 years of persecution and proud resistance on behalf of the Jews. The protagonist of Fromental Halévy's grand opéra might well have been one of the thrifty artisans and merchants who built up the significant 19th century trading port of Gothenburg: a goldsmith on whose craftsmanship the most powerful in the city were dependant for the symbolic display of their wealth. The audience on this historic evening, when La Juive returned to the repertoire in the same city where it received its Swedish première 150 years ago, was remarkably silent and attentive, fascinated by its confrontation with a rarely performed piece of such explosive political power.

Michael Schmidberger (Cardinal Brogni) and Lars Cleveman (Eléazar) © Mats Bäcker
Michael Schmidberger (Cardinal Brogni) and Lars Cleveman (Eléazar)
© Mats Bäcker

Seeing La Juive today, one is reminded of how strongly this piece affected 19th century audiences: the tragic element, which verges on melodrama in its intensity, struck such a strong chord that it remained one of the most popular pieces in the repertoire until the early 20th century. There are indeed some gripping moments in La Juive which equal the dramatic intensity of the best of Verdi: Eléazar’s mournful farewell aria, was performed with a passionate grief by Cleveman which was heightened by the rare colouring with syncopated blue notes indicative of Halévy’s Jewish ancestry. Equally gripping is the gruesome finale where father and daughter (Mireille Delunsch’s intense Rachel) are sentenced to death while being observed by the crowd. However, there are some less gripping moments where the taxing vocal demands of the opera become evident in the string of tight ensemble pieces which expose the inner conflicts of the characters. The wrenching drama also exposes the unevenness of the cast, some emerging as stronger interpreters than others.

Günther Krämer’s stark staging is merciless in its exposure of the seemingly irrevocable differences between Christians and Jews, differences which stem from the unempathetic cruelty of the former – based on the assumption of the ‘guilt’ of the Jews and the superiority of Christianity. Using only three colours – red, black and white – this production sometimes reads like a silent film from the last years of Emperor Franz Joseph or later, more violent times. Joakim Brink’s lighting design and Isabel Ines Glathar’s costumes are equally stylized and unpardoning. Large crowds go through the mechanical motions of flag waving at the entrance of the the Emperor. The same crowds scream with laughter and beat up innocent Jews with similar detachment. Yet, the paradox is in the music: in the opening scene, as in the finale, the Gothenburg Opera Chorus sets the tone with beautifully sung Christian anthems which speak of forgiveness and mercy.

Lars Cleveman (Eléazar) © Mats Bäcker
Lars Cleveman (Eléazar)
© Mats Bäcker

But how relevant is Halévy’s opera to the present idea of ‘Jewishness’? As writer Anders Hammarlund points out in the programme booklet, Halévy’s opera bears little trace of Jewish cantorial music and has more in common with the French musical tradition than anything else. A contemporary of the equally successful Giacomo Meyerbeer, also an assimilated Jew, Halévy was as significant in pointing the direction for romantic opera. In the large swelling choruses which provide a backdrop for the inner monologues of the characters, and in the attention paid to building characters using vocal and orchestral colouring, Halévy set the tone, Berlioz and Meyerbeer followed suit, Verdi and Wagner brought the format to completion.

Mireille Delunsch (Rachel) © Mats Bäcker
Mireille Delunsch (Rachel)
© Mats Bäcker

The kernel of grand opéra is derived from the French tragédie lyrique: the Racinian conflict between loyalty to the cause or to Nation, and filial love or romance on the other hand. Eléazar’s daughter Rachel (Mireille Delunsch), thus, is torn between loyalty to her father and to her lover, Léopold (tenor Tuomas Katajala), who conceals from her the fact that he is in fact a Christian. Eléazar in his turn is split between the love for his daughter, and his desire for revenge on the Christians, epitomized by Cardinal de Brogni (bass Michael Schmidberger). And Léopold, who is in fact a Christian prince, struggles to reconcile his loyalty to the throne and to his betrothed Eudoxie (Regina Silinskaitè), with his passion for Rachel.

It is interesting to think that the role of Eudoxie was written for soprano Jenny Lind: her’s is a virtuoso coloratura role, in stark contrast to the dramatic spinto soprano of Rachel. At the Gothenburg opera, Regina Silinskaité’s brittle sounding Eudoxie met the vocal requirements – and played out her superiority in the rivalry with Rachel with frightening coldness. The drama of the finale equals some of the most gripping moments in operatic history – the immolation of the world of Eléazar and Rachel is a clear parallel to the sepulchral burial of Radamès and Aida, and judging from the audience reaction, the appeal for compassion reached the hearts of everyone.