Halévy’s La Juive in Lyon

Halévy’s La Juive has enjoyed a number of revivals in recent years along with other “grand” operas by his near contemporary Meyerbeer. The French themselves have been somewhat contemptuous of this strand in their musical history, quite unjustifiably as this performance at Lyon revealed. The piece naturally formed the centrepiece of the company’s Festival pour l’Humanité which focussed on the fate of the Jews. The score is never devoid of interest, making its greatest impact in a series of duologues between the principal characters, rather than in solo arias. The voices required, heroic strength, brilliant high notes and bel canto technique, are not plentiful in supply but a good team had been assembled. Nikolai Schukoff offered a well-integrated vocal and dramatic characterisation of Eléazar, Enea Scala as the libertine prince Leopold produced some immaculate high Cs, as his wife Sabina Puértolas effortlessly threw off her coloratura outbursts, while the veteran Italian bass Roberto Scandiuzzi, as Cardinal Brogni, smoothly descended into the lower reaches of his sonorous bass. But the star of the show was unquestionably soprano Rachel Harnisch combining a pure silky top register with characterful colouring of the middle range.A wonderfully moving performance, this.  In the pit, youngster Daniele Rustioni, by the intensity of his interpretation, communicated a conviction that this really was music from the top drawer.

And then there was the production. Olivier Py is experienced in this repertory. He was faced with the challenge of deciding to what extent the piece, with antisemitism at its core, should be related to the Holocaust. Aided by designer Pierre-André Weitz, his admirable solution,a largely 20th century setting in sombre greys and black and with, at the beginning and end, a bleak landscape containing dead trees and rising smoke, made the connection, but not too blatantly. I was particularly impressed by his positioning of the protagonists on the stage, nowhere more so than in the finale to Act Two when Rachel, the non-Jewish Juive emerged from a large Shield of David, first to repudiate, then to succumb to, Leopold. One small blemish: allowing the chorus in one scene to hold up xenophobic placards to keep France free from foreigners may have reflected the production team’s desire to extend the significance of the opera to the current refugee crisis but it stuck out like a sore thumb in an otherwise homogenous staging. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, a superb evening of musical theatre.