Jacques Fromental Halévy (1799-1862) was a much loved and celebrated composer during his lifetime. He composed about forty operas, of which at least half were quite successful. Yet: none of his works has ever matched the popularity of La Juive.
La Juive, ‘The Jewess’ once was an absolute audience favourite and until the thirties of the last century the piece was performed with great regularity. The role of Éléazar was sung by the greatest and most famous tenors of the time: Caruso, Leo Slezak, Giovanni Martinelli… Who not?
Enrico Caruso in a recording made on 14-09-1920:
Leo Slezak (in German) in a 1928 recording:
I could not find an example of Martinelli on Youtube, but a live recording from 1936 of the second act exists (with Elisabeth Rethberg as Rachel), plus some fragments of the fourth act, from 1926 (SRO 848-1).
Éléazar is not an amiable man. Like Shakespeare’s Shylock, he is repulsive and pitiful at the same time. He’s full of resentment and insists on retaliation for which he’s prepared to sacrifice anything, including what he loves most. But has he always been like that, or have circumstances made him like that? Moreover, he too has his doubts – in his great aria he sincerely asks himself (and God) whether he has acted well.
Actually, you can see him as a male equivalent of Azucena. Both have lost their own child(ren) and both have taken care of a child of their enemy and raised it as their own flesh and blood. As a result, Manrico became a gypsy boy and Rachel a Jewess. With all the consequences that follow.
In the 1930s Halévy was labelled ‘degenerate’ and, together with his opera, ended up in the big garbage dump of what the Nazis called ‘Entartete Musik.’
Nowadays La Juive is staged by all the major opera houses and in 2009 she even visited Amsterdam – in a magnificent production by Pierre Audi. However, it is not so long ago that Halévy was known as the composer of one aria and his opera was a real curiosity, especially in Europe. I wonder, therefore, what would have happened to La Juive if there had not been someone like Richard Tucker.
Tucker (1913-1975), one of the greatest tenors of his time, was not only the star singer at the Metropolitan Opera, but also the cantor at the New York main synagogue. Éléazar was his dream role and with his star status he could afford to get the opera on stage with different companies in different countries, if only in concert.
His greatest dream, however, was to sing La Juive in the Met, completely staged. In January 1975 he was told that the opera was planned for the 1975/1976 season. Bernstein would conduct and the other roles would be sung by Beverly Sills (Rachel), Nicolai Gedda (Léopold) and Paul Plischka (the cardinal).
It was not meant to be: on January 8, a day before the production talks were to start, Tucker suffered a heart attack, from which he died.
You can get the heavily cut La Juive with Tucker on several labels (mine is on Legato Classics LCD-120-2). The (pirate) recording was made in London, in 1973. The sound is poor and the rest of the singers are only so-so, but because of Tucker it is an absolute must.
In 1973 RCA (now Sony 88985397782) recorded highlights from the opera with Tucker, Anna Moffo and Martina Arroyo in the studio.
I have strong suspicions that the reason for this recording was Moffo (Eudoxie). At that time she was one of the stars of the firm. A literally gorgeous soprano, who not only presented herself well on the cover but also was not the worst singer. With her light, agile voice she was extremely suitable for young girl’s roles, but Eudoxie was also a good fit for her.
Martina Arroyo is a fine Rachel and Bonaldo Giaiotti a great cardinal, but the real star of the recording is – next to Tucker – the conductor. Antonio de Almeida has a clear feeling for the work.
Tucker and Martina Arroyo in the ‘Seider scene’:
I have never been able to understand why José Carreras added the role of Éléazar to his repertoire. It did fit in with his desire to sing heavier, more dramatic roles. Roles that were one size too large for his beautiful, lyrical tenor. Which absolutely does not mean that he could not sing the role! He succeeded quite nicely and the result is more than worth listening to, but he doesn’t sound truly idiomatic.
In the live recording from Vienna 1981 Carreras also sounds too young (he was only thirty-five then!), something that is particularly noticeable in the Seider-evening scene. It is sung beautifully, but due to a lack of weight he tends to shout a bit.
José Carreras sings ‘Rachel, quand du Seigneur’:
Ilona Tokody is a Rachel of a Scotto-like intensity (what a pity she never sang the role onstage!) and Sona Ghazarian sings an excellent Eudoxie.
But, to be honest: nobody, but nobody can measure up to Cesare Siepi in his role as Cardinal Brogni. After his first big aria he is justifiably rewarded with a long ovation.
Below Cesare Siepi in ‘Si la rigeur’:
Chris Meritt (Léopold) may not have the most beautiful of all tenor voices, but he has all his high notes. Although they sometimes came out a little squeezed. The heavily cut score was conducted with great love by Gerd Albrecht (Legato Classics 224-2).
La Juive, recorded by Philips in 1989, marked the first studio recording Carreras made after his illness. His voice was now less sweet and smooth than before, but sounded much more alive, which improved his interpretation of the role.
Julia Varady is a beautiful Rachel, perhaps one of the best ever and Eudoxie is in excellent hands with June Anderson.
Dalmacio Gonzales is a more than decent Léopold, in any case much better than Chris Merrit and the French-American-Portuguese conductor Antonio de Almeida shows he has a real affinity with the opera. (Philips 475 7629)
We know Eve Queler not only as one of the first famous female conductors, but also as one of the greatest champions of the unknown opera repertoire. On 13 April 1999 she conducted a very exciting performance of La Juive in New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Paul Plishka was a good cardinal and Jean-Luc Viala and Olga Makarina sounded excellent as respectively Léopold and Eudoxie.
Francisco Casanova – after Tucker and Shicoff – in my opinion is perhaps the greatest Éléazar of our time. His robust tenor sounds tormented and passionate but also extremely lyrical. The Rachel, sung by Asmik Papian with sizzling passion, fits in perfectly with this. So beautiful, I have no words for it.
If you manage to get the CDs: buy them right away! Also, because the recording is almost complete. (House of Opera CD 426)
Below Francisco Casanova sings ‘Dieu que ma voix tremblante’:
Neil Shicoff, like Tucker, has made Éléazar the role of his life. The first time he sang him was in Vienna, in 1998. The performance, with an excellent cast (Soile Isokoski as Rachel, Zoran Todorovich as Léopold and Alastair Miles as the cardinal Brogni), was recorded live and released by RCA on CD (RCA 795962).
The same production (with Shicoff and Isokoski) travelled to the Met in 2003 and a few months later returned to Vienna, where the opera was recorded on DVD (DG 0734001). Shicoff was still present, but the other singers were replaced.