Friday 8 July 2016

Halévy - La Juive (Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016)

Fromental Halévy - La Juive

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016

Bertrand de Billy, Calixto Bieito, Aleksandra Kurzak, Roberto Alagna, John Osborn, Vera-Lotte Böcker, Ain Anger, Johannes Kammler, Tareq Nazmi, Christian Rieger, Peter Lobert - 27 June 2016

Calixto Bieito's production of Halévy's La Juive for the Bavarian State Opera was roundly and rudely booed at the end of the performance broadcast live from the Munich Summer Opera Festival. I'm sure the Catalan director is well used to that kind of reception, but it's worth examining why of all places it would be so badly received at the Bayerische Staatsoper. The Munich audience are used to all kinds of operatic modernisations and reinterpretations in a theatre where Hans Neuenfels, Krzysztof Warlikowsi and Martin Kušej are very much the 'norm'. Bieito's understated production surely wasn't that inflammatory or disrespectful? Is it possible that just wasn't challenging enough?

Or if not challenging enough, Bieito's production certainly failed in one crucial aspect that will permit most indulgences on the opera stage - it lacked adequate fidelity to the source. Not in terms of adhering to the specifics of the plot; Bieito's production does its best to make the basic elements of the story work in a relatable context, and even gives a fairly outdated work some kind of rationale that might work on the stage. To do so however he has to offload a lot of the grand opéra baggage of the work, which unfortunately proves to be rather more important and integral to the piece as a whole.

Of all the traditions, periods and styles that opera has embraced over the last few hundred years, grand opéra still seems to be the most problematic when it comes to modernisation, contemporary relevance and musical tastes. Bel canto, opera seria and Baroque have all been adapted or made to work on the modern stage on their own terms, but while there have been some notable efforts to revive the works of Meyerbeer, none have really succeeded in developing any further taste for grand opéra. There is no obvious reason why a musical form so rich in melody, diversity, drama and pure entertainment should not appeal to an audience who are still predominately in thrall to the epic visions of Verdi and Wagner, but either we are no longer capable of successfully presenting and singing such works, or else they just don't resonate with a modern audience.

That the romantic part of the plot of La Juive is overblown melodrama with scarcely an ounce of credibility you can take pretty much for granted. Rachel, a young Jewish girl (la juive), loves Samuel, also a son of Israel (Eugene Scribe's compendium of clichés and banalities that passes for a libretto includes every conceivable synonym for Jew). Cruel deception; in reality Samuel is actually called Léopold and is a Christian, and as such he can never be married to a Jewess. Recanting her religion would be an option that might help overcome these divisions and even help calm the religious tensions, but wait... this is grand opera and there are more dire revelations to come since 'Samuel' has neglected to mention that not only is he a Christian, but he is the Prince Léopold and already married to Princess Eudoxie. And without her knowing it, Rachel is a Christian all along, a fact that only comes to light much too late in an unfortunate Il Trovatore-like twist. 

And that's just the romantic drama. Religious intolerance stirs up quite a bit more drama that leads to an inevitably tragic conclusion of huge proportions, and all these elements, revelations and reactions are drawn together into one grand musical set piece after another. The opera even opens with a huge religious festival called by the Council of Constance to celebrate a victory over the Hussites that has prevented a schism in Rome. I have no idea what the religious or historical significance of this is, but to judge by Fromental Halévy's music - a huge choral section over a church organ accompaniment - it's a very big deal indeed and one that a Jewish businessman/blacksmith like Éléazar would have been well advised to avoid.

Halévy's score is not overly emphatic (Verdi is much more bombastic), but every violent thought and action, every shocking revelation is played in a conventional way, so Calixto Bieito's strenuous efforts to underplay the excesses and conventions of grand opéra are understandable. In some respects Bieito's production is not unlike Christof Loy's DNO production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes - a minimalist and modernised staging that lost none of the work's power, and by the same token neither should La Juive. La Juive however is not Les Vêpres Siciliennes and Halévy is not Verdi, but neither is there any of the revisionist spin that Loy needed to apply to the ballet sequence of Les Vêpres Siciliennes in order to make its plot developments a little more palatable to a modern audience.

Up to the interval at least however, the audience seem to go with it, and there is indeed much to enjoy in the revival of this rarely performed work. Not least are the opportunities to hear some great singing which is well catered for here in a strong cast lead by an intense Aleksandra Kurzak as Rachel, with Robert Alagna giving it his all as Éléazar and a gloriously lyrical turn from John Osborn as Léopold. The roles push Kurzak and Alagna to their limits but these are strong performances of great dramatic conviction and they are capably supported by Vera-Lotte Böcker as Eudoxie, Ain Anger as Cardinal Brogni and Johannes Kammler as Ruggiero, the fanatical arm of his forces.

Essentially then, Bieito does manage to convey the drama of La Juive with utmost fidelity. He sidesteps any unnecessary playing on specific religious symbols in favour of a view of the opera as "a requiem for a young woman" set against a backdrop of more generalised fanaticism and intolerance. The reaction of the Munich audience then to the creative team at the curtain call is difficult to ascertain. Perhaps they felt that Bieito failed to successfully provide stage directions commensurate with the overheated drama and music (which having most recently seen what the director does with Turandot would be a first), or perhaps some of the German audience felt that the message of fanaticism and intolerance was too close to home. If so, then the irony of the audience reaction will not be lost on anyone following recent political developments in Europe.

The next Bayerische Staatsoper broadcasts from the 2016 summer festival will be Rameau's Les Indes Galantes on 24th July, conducted by Ivor Bolton with direction and choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on 31st July, conducted by Kirill Petrenko in a new production directed by David Bösch