At the premiere, in 1835, Fromenthal Halévy’s La Juive triumphed, in part, due to its spectacular staging –critics jested that the military processions could shatter the balance of power in Europe–and in part for the frisson of the opera’s horrific conclusion, Rachel and Eléazar tossed into boiling oil by a Christian mob singing merrily of its “vengeance” on the Jews. 

Only we, and the wretched Cardinal (who has only just found it out), are aware that Rachel, the titular Jewess, is actually a Gentile, the Cardinal’s long-lost daughter, and that it is her adoptive father, Eléazar, who has taken bitter vengeance on his Christian persecutors.

The irony is typical of a grand opera libretto by Eugène Scribe, and was to an extent reproduced with a similarly heavy hand the following year in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Both these vastly popular operas gave the citizen’s of Louis-Philippe’s Paris the happy reflection that such medieval horrors could never return to the revolutionary modern world, would henceforth sonly appear on the stage as entertainment, not in the streets. That irony, which would have appealed to Scribe if he were still around, makes these once-popular works very relevant indeed in the present day.

A brilliant production of La Juive like that of Peter Konwitschny, which premiered (as Zidovka, naturally) at the Slovak National Opera in Bratislava last Friday after earlier essays in Antwerp and Mannheim, generalizes the message that mindless hate does not pay and the mindless mob is always the enemy of civilization. Individuals can change and grow–or refuse to grow. They can be transformed by love. The mob can be swayed or disbanded but never brought to reason

The primacy of the mob–which, rather than any individual, even slimy Léopold or bitter Eléazar, is the villain of La Juive–illustrates a major transformation in grand opera of the post-aristocratic era. In the wake of the French Revolution, the chorus had begun to a occupy a new and leading role. It was not a subtle and seldom an ambivalent role; choral forces are usually of a single mind.

They were still, at this time, a background against which more individual dramas were played out: the prisoners of tyranny in Fidelio who remind us that what’s at stake is not just one marriage; the oppressed Swiss peasantry of Guillaume Tell; the indignant and restive Gauls of Norma. They inspire or condemn our principals, but before La Juive, they did not hound them to death. With La Juive, this became an option. The chorus has ceased to be background and has become a Character in the drama, just as electoral and national forces had become political actors.

Today, Halévy’s music provides the same musical and melodramatic thrills as ever (if you can find the right singers–you don’t need the military processions), but La Juive has a new relevance. Nor, despite Catholic and Jewish ritual elements, need its production necessarily focus on any one conflict.

In the Konwitschny’s staging, all the characters wear identical black suits or dresses, aside from Princess Eudoxie, the Other Woman, in blue with a mink coat, and the Cardinal, who adopts a clerical collar. None of the Jews wear kippoth, but all the Christians wear blue gloves and Jews wear yellow ones. Léopold/Samuel, Eudoxie’s noble husband who is also Rachel’s seducer, wears different pairs, at times removing yellow to reveal blue, adopting or renouncing faiths as the plot requires. The howling mob dresses Rachel and Eléazar as Santa Claus and a pope in derision, and for their execution, they are clothed in white as a bride and groom.

Konwitschny’s backdrop (by Johannes Leiacker) is an enormous stained glass window that goes dark during the scene at Eléazar’s house. Vertical metal bars become dungeon cells or city streets by turn. Eudoxie breaks into Eléazar’s home (interrupting his seder) drunk, a gun in one hand and a bottle of Moët in the other. She uses the gun to demolish the bottle. Eleazar disarms her, and later turns the gun on the treacherous Léopold, having caught him attempting to elope with Rachel. Rachel takes the weapon next, to threaten herself in order to calm her father down. The gun is an attention-holding symbol of the violence that will destroy them all, and we follow it from hand to hand through the mazes of Act II.

In Act III, we have other symbols. Rachel enters Eudoxie’s room in a trench coat. Neither lady is actually wearing gloves at this point–they are merely painted on, though we do not realize this. When Rachel offers friendship, Eudoxie too reaches out–then draws back her hand. She has never actually touched a person with yellow (Jewish) hands. She must force herself to be “tolerant.” The two women duet while scrubbing their hands free of color in the same bucket.

But then Léopold is discovered to be Eudoxie’s husband, and the furious Rachel opens her trench coat–to reveal a belt of dynamite around her waist. Like a suicide bomber, she detonates the unbalanced plot. Konwitschny leads the image into the concerted number that ends Act III (and the first half of a one-intermission performance) by turning the stage into a munitions factory where all the singers (with many different colors of glove) take part in an assembly line to produce belts of explosive.

The new SND opera house in Bratislava is a handsome, 850-seat theater in a gracious arts complex. There is an open aisle between rows three and four of the orchestra, and the stage area flows on either side of the pit into the parterre. This permits much breaking of the fourth wall. The mob, waving blue (Christian) flags, overflows into the audience, standing among us in a noisy political rally as they humiliate the Jews. Rachel, in torment, joins us in that intervening aisle to scoff at Léopold/Samuel’s explanations.

Eléazar comes out on one of the wings of the stage to reflect on the situation of his great aria, “Rachel, quand du Seigneur.” The funeral march before Act V is played against a black curtain with lights glaring down upon us, making us part of the mob of witnesses, an accusation of our society if you like. This was a great night at the opera, shattering political theater, an engrossing commentary on the present situation of our world.

With all its charms and its position as a national capital (close to everywhere, an hour’s train ride from Vienna), Bratislava does not rank high on the international opera circuit. The singers are local. The chorus and the orchestra highly schooled and enthusiastic, but lacking the power of a top-rank organization. Programming is gratifyingly original: the new production last month was Vivaldi’s Arsilda. New works as well as arcana show up regularly. The theater can produce to anyone’s capacity. Konwitschny comes often, to tweak evolving shows outside the major league limelight. Aficionados cross the border often.

The conductor, Robert Jindra, a Janacek specialist, was in tight control of the massed chorales that pop in and out of the opera, the grand Te Deums, the imperial processions, the spectacular concertato. Everything sizzled.

The finest of the singers was Liudmila Slepneva, who sang Rachel with a deep, womanly power and dignity, rising to brilliance in her more hysterical moments. Her despair in the final scenes was most moving. As her opposite number, Eudoxie, Jana Bernáthová acted well–her hesitation to take Rachel’s yellow hand was a striking instant–but sang with a light, watery coloratura providing little body to the high notes and trills.

Michal Lehotsky, whose portrayal of the reviled Eléazar was sturdy and passionate, sang the great Seder invocation in Act II and the reflective aria often cut from Act III with a sweeping tone that seemed inspired by the ritual occasion to a shimmering beauty. In contrast, his “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” was gruff, as if the acute self-questioning of his situation was too great for lyricism.

Konwitschny retains the bigoted offstage chorus that follows (the singers, however, were not offstage) and Eléazar’s response, the cabaletta of rage in which Eléazar resolves to let his daughter die rather than yield her to his enemies by revealing her identity. This cabaletta, which Neil Shicoff omitted at the Met but Roberto Alagna has been restoring in his performances, was sung with the proper passion, but again Lehotsky let his desperation push him out of more elegant way of singing it.

Juhan Tralla sang an athletic but not terribly sensuous Léopold, and omitted the lovely serenade addressed to Rachel.

Peter Mikuláš sang Cardinal de Brogni with the proper resonance and spiritual authority, though unable to reach the low E (is it an E?) called for by “Si la rigueur.” His prison confrontations with father and daughter (in which the actual relationships are painfully clear, to us and in the score, though he remains in ignorance) were very intense. Pavol Remenár sang Ruggiero with a gravelly bass but gave a delightfully physical performance–people were always knocking him off platforms or down flights of stairs, and he was always on his feet, emoting, in no time.

The opera was sung in the original French with Slovak surtitles; the people around me seemed mostly to be speaking German. Half the audience stood, enthusiastically, when Konwitschny appeared, but there were also some catcalls. I was among the former group.

There will be a couple of other performances of the opera, with a slightly different cast, at the end of the month. If you’re nearby (Vienna, Brno, Budapest), go for it.

Photos: Pavol Breier