French grand opera was bound to come back.
The most objurgated and strenuously rejected of music-theater genres, expensive to produce and requiring brilliant, highly specialized voices, it couldn’t re-enter the opera house casually. A great many other genres had to wear out their welcome first; even the operatic catalogs of Handel and Rameau,
both long inconceivable onstage in a Verdi-and-Wagner world, had to be run through before the Paris operas of the Romantic age could find their way back into the repertoire. Still, here they are. Tenor Neil Shicoff’s passion to follow in Caruso’s footsteps has brought La Juive back to the Met, in a Vienna State Opera production staged by Günter Krämer; the Berlioz bicentennial has brought the great critic-composer’s gloriously florid first opera to the same stage, in a production by Andrei Serban. Though both musical renderings are resplendent, neither staging is much of a success. They fail, interestingly, for opposite reasons.
Jacques-François Fromental Halévy (1799-1862) was not one of the world’s greatest dramatic composers. But he was a very great composer of the second rank: canny, scrupulous, and sensitive to effect. His librettist was the equally knowing Eugène Scribe, inventor of the well-made play and the real shaper of mid-century Paris’s operatic style. (Among countless other libretti, Scribe provided Verdi with both I Vespri Siciliani and the source text for Un Ballo in Maschera.) An actively assimilationist Jew, Halévy saw theatrical value in the Christian-Jewish conflicts that had marred European history; this matched neatly with Scribe’s gift for turning any kind of historical clash into the onstage confrontation of operatic antagonists.
In La Juive, set in medieval Switzerland, Christian vindictiveness and hypocrisy face off against the closed-mindedness of embattled ghetto residents. Love crosses the boundary, but only to be destroyed by the obstinacy on both sides. Scribe gives the two teams equal dramatic opportunities, and Halévy even provides both with liturgical music of considerable gravity. Paris grand opera glories in shifts of scale, from the epic to the personal; one of Halévy’s most effective such shifts is the contrast between the full-stage grandeur of the opening organ chorale and the plangent beauty of the small ensemble in the next act’s Passover service. One is splendid and solemn; the other is tiny—the Jews are greatly outnumbered—but heartfelt.
Gunter Kramer’s production, on a stark unit set by Gottfried Pilz, emphasized the conflict while reducing the context to near total abstraction. A diagonal ramp sloped upward all the way from stage right to stage left; over its low end hovered an enormous rectangular chandelier that looked like an ice sculptor’s bad dream. Though characters alter their nuanced views many times during the opera, Kramer used Isabel Ines Glathar’s costumes to spell matters out in literal black and white: The Jews wore all black and lived on the stage floor, in front of the ramp; the goyim, all dressed in white except for the customary anti-Semitic Cardinal, lived above them on the ramp itself, an arrangement that looked pretty silly when a banquet table had to be laid there. (The Jews could at least sit for their seder at a nonsloping table.)
As always in Scribe’s five-act structures, the pivotal moment comes at the end of Act III, when the title character, a goldsmith’s daughter named Rachel, learns that her “Jewish” suitor is not only a Gentile but a married aristocrat—and reveals their affair at his wife’s welcome-home banquet. The sight of the Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski, her face flushed with passion, singing her heart out as she scrambled up onto the ramp to accuse her faithless lover, ranks with the most ludicrous pieces of staging I’ve ever seen in an opera house. And, yes, when Rachel and her father are imprisoned and tried in the last two acts, Kramer placed the Jews up on the ramp and the Gentiles below, so that, for instance, a panel of inquisitors faced us while interrogating characters who stood above and behind them. Well, at least Kramer realized there were two sides to the conflict, which is more than some opera directors. The misguided staging was a particular pity because Marcello Viotti conducted the score with a rich sense of its colors, and the singing ranged from excellent to superb. Shicoff, as Rachel’s father, was alone in giving a fully articulated performance physically as well as vocally: His Eleazar was a complete, complex person, making you resent the absence of the complex world around him.
The Renaissance world around the great sculptor-adventurer Benvenuto Cellini, in Andrei Serban’s vision, is not only complex but frenetic; his staging, on a huge domed set by George Tsypin, with a multitude of levels, has all the color and movement that Kramer’s lacked. The only trouble is that most of it was inapposite clutter. Berlioz’s Cellini is in love with the daughter of his nemesis, the papal treasurer Balducci, who seems to maintain in his house the world’s largest commedia troupe; the lovers can go nowhere without half a dozen tall-hatted Longhi Pierrots surrounding them. The big dramatic moments, so gorgeously built up in Berlioz’s orchestration (and gorgeously played under James Levine’s baton) all tend to get lost in the endless festoons of superfluous people running madly in all directions. The staging is pretty, but as irritatingly undramatic as the drab monotone of Kramer’s one-note simplicity. Working from opposite approaches, neither director could convey a stage equivalent for the intricacy and variety of the music, and neither got to the core of the drama that music was composed to express. Musically, intellectually, emotionally, we’re ready for French grand opera again. But our shabby, director-dominated theater isn’t ready to encompass it.