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How topical: an opera about religious intolerance. Jacques Fromental Halévy’s La Juive (The Jewess) ends with Jews and Christians exchanging abuse, both believing they have avenged themselves on each other through a brutal execution. But it was far from topical at its 1835 Paris premiere. What represents actualité to us was passé to mid-19th- century Europe. Jewish emancipation was in the ascendant. Intolerance could be viewed dispassionately, and anyway it was the tortured love element that interested Halévy and his librettist Eugène Scribe. La Juive was instantly popular – here was opera-spectacle verging on opera-soap – but, curiously, just as religious intolerance returned, it fell from favour. Today La Juive speaks more powerfully than ever. In the early 1990s I saw a production in Bielefeld that transposed the action to Nazi Germany. And barely has Pope Benedict let slip his inflammatory remarks about Moslems than La Juive resonates again.
The Royal Opera’s concert performance skirts the interpretative minefield but suggests La Juive justifies a thoughtful modern staging. At 3½ hours this sensitively cut version seems about right. The opera is front-loaded with spectacular tableaux in 19th-century Parisian style, which showcase the Royal Opera’s chorus and frame scenes of genuine urgency.
Daniel Oren welded his forces effectively, and Dennis O’Neill worked hard at Eléazar, the Caruso role. Dario Schmunck’s Léopold, the higher-lying of Halévy’s two tenors, was easy on the ear. But what gave this performance (repeated tonight) its class was the casting of Marina Poplavskaya and Nicole Cabell as Rachel and Princess Eudoxie. Both sopranos are on the springboard of a great career. Despite poor French both communicated a sense of drama. Cabell, confident but not cocky, adorned her coloratura with warmth, intelligence and glorious musicianship. Paplovskaya is heiress to the Varady repertoire – febrile, on-the- edge, intuitive, pure, her soaring line as distinctive as her soft singing. ★★★★☆
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