Star tenor Neil Shicoff has had an amazing career around the world, but admits himself to having a special relationship with the Wiener Staatsoper, at least during the Ioan Holender era. As such, it is fitting that his last staged operatic performance at the Haus am Ring is to be that of his signature role, Eleazar in Halévy’s La Juive, within a production created specifically with him in mind back in 1999. Fans will have to use their elbows if they want to attend however, the final performance set for the 7 March.

Olga Bezsmertna (Rachel) and Neil Shicoff (Eléazar) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Olga Bezsmertna (Rachel) and Neil Shicoff (Eléazar)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper

The production, by Günter Krämer, is a mixed bag on a stage that is difficult to sing from. The upper half, depicting the world of the Christians, is in white and features the hugest chandelier in the business while the lower half is in black. Likewise, the Jews who inhabit the lower half wear black while the Christians are in white… or in traditional Austrian Trachten and Dirndl, the reasoning for which is questionable. That being said, Leopold gets to change between black and white coats throughout the production, which nicely underlines the fact that he has a foot in each religious camp, and the black against white and sloped stage do allow for some very effective tableaux. Less successful is the Personenregie, which combines some very nice symbolic gestures between the stage halves with some extremely hidebound, tedious flag waving, silverware play and the like. The shock factor at the end (spoiler alert) involves men dressed like red KKK members drowning Rachel in the baptismal font.

But the production was not what anyone was here to see. Fans of Shicoff adore him for his dramatic performances, and unique vocal color. And the drama was very much in play; we gasped openly as he violently threw Jason Bridges (Léopold) onto the table and spat in his face holding a knife to his throat. Likewise, his depiction of the embittered, fanatical Eléazar was layered, difficult and fundamentally human. Vocally, despite the fact that Shicoff was still quite under the weather (officially announced as being vocally constrained due to illness before curtain rise), after a bit of a careful start he let go and was madly applauded both after his trademark “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” at the end of Act IV, then soon after during numerous curtain calls. Nobody would fault him for stepping down at this point in the game, but his performance was that of a seasoned artist who has gotten to the core of his character after years and years of study, and that is always something worth seeing.

Neil Shicoff (Eléazar) © Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
Neil Shicoff (Eléazar)
© Michael Pöhn | Wiener Staatsoper
There were other bright spots to pick out of the rest of the cast. First and foremost, Olga Bezsmertna's Rachel deserved her day in the limelight. Bequeathed with a powerful instrument of unusual beauty, focus and clarity, it would surprise me greatly not to hear much more of in the very near future, she is a star in the making and a consummate artist. Those coming to hear the Opernball discovery Aida Garifullina singing Princess Eudoxie would have to accept disappointment. Due to illness, Hila Fahima was asked on the day of the performance to jump in, and though she bravely did her part and showed signs of having an absolutely beautiful high coloratura soprano of exceptional clarity, she was clearly uncomfortable debuting the role with such short notice. Jason Bridges (Léopold) managed an absolutely thankless tenor part (two high Cs and 4 high Bs in rather awkward places) with great aplomb. His slender, beautiful tenor voice may not rattle the pillars, but his diction was clear and flawless, and he demonstrated a sensitive control of sound, particularly in the opening act, which offered a welcome alternative to the many penetrating screamers who share his Fach. Speaking of rattling pillars, Dan Paul Dumitrescu (Cardinal Brogni) has a warm, massive bass baritone which seems to come out of the floorboards and raise you from your seat. It is a voice that could double as the voice of God, and the Staatsoper has been very lucky to claim him in their ranks over all of these years.

Last but certainly not least, bravo to Frédéric Chaslin, who is not only a fine conductor with an excellent sense of tempo and style for this music, but also really a singers' conductor. Although he is insistent enough not to give into the every whim of the soloist, he understands what they do and does everything possible to support. Under his baton the Staatsoperorchester sounded brilliant, as did the chorus. 

Those who are able would be wise to scare up a ticket for Shicoff’s swansong – it would be a shame to miss an historic performance.