Saturday, July 23, 2016

Dark, thought-provoking and vocally superb, Bieito builds a monument to Halévy's La Juive in Munich

It was a musical and theatrical evening of the highest quality and one that brings all the finest forces together in a performance that you long to live though again. Wedded well-known singers Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna, on stage together, satisfied the fans but they were also joined by a superb cast of soloists in Bayerische Staatsoper's new production of Fromental Halévy's La Juive (1835), mounted in a seamless artistic monument by Spanish director Calixto Bieito. Sung in French and even without understanding the German surtitles, nothing felt lost in this thought provoking production.

Bayerische Staatsoper La Juive, Act III
If you've never heard of it you're far from alone. Not knowing anything about what the work could achieve, it was an extraordinary find to see a rarely performed opera by an equally rarely performed composer. Halévy's grand orchestral score, the lush vocal work and Bieito's deceivingly dark and simple formula for an unsettling story with unequivocal relevance today, make this work a sure contender for a more prominent place on the opera stage.

Eugène Scribe's libretto concerns the story of forbidden love between the Jewish woman Rachel (Aleksandra Kurzak) and the Christian man Léopold (John Osborn), one that, if discovered will result in death for her and excommunication for him. When discovered, it all unravels with enormous tragic results. At first, Rachel believes Léopold is a Jew, unaware that he has disguised himself and married to Princess Eudoxie (Vera-Lotte Böcker). Rachel is really the daughter of Cardinal Brogni, (Ain Anger), saved from a fire when she was a baby by the father that raised her, Éléazar, (Roberto Alagna), a subplot which helps to shed light on motivations of the protagonists.

Backed by his characteristic insightful eye, Bieito uses a combination of stylistic and naturalistic devices in his direction to achieve both subtlety and power as the narrative slowly drifts over an undercurrent of darkness. The entire staging highlights the oneness and differences in humanity, the instilled fear of the other as a threat, and of intolerances we have but can't see. In this case, it's a religious clash of belief but it could be any other prejudice that we live amongst.

Roberto Alagna 
Aleksandra Kurzak reaches into her character's heart and imbues Rachel with just enough forthrightness without extinguishing an underlying and intoxicating grace. Kurzak balances the taxing register shifts with beauty and her birdsong brightness at the top was gleaming. If there was anything to fault her performance, it appeared with an occasional chipped edge at the top, but Kurzak's enigmatic performance was always breathtaking in the role's demands.

As the courageous Éléazar, Roberto Alagna commanded the stage with both sympathetic determination and worrying defiance. In the opera's best known aria, Act III's "Rachel! Quand du seigneur", Alagna fleshed out an agonised man with all the vocal power and burnished appeal he displayed from the outset. An evenness in the voice shined through its entire range, a fine, toasty vibrato and beautiful lengthened notes oozed with an ease of phrasing that all made his character convincing. Even when the voice seemed to approach breaking point, Alagna shot through with aching emotional integrity.

John Osborn turned on a the star quality with his dynamic, attractive and resonant tenor and a committed performance style as Léopold. In the first encounter we have with him, Osborn climbs the wall in a sign he straddles both sides, indoctrinated as a Christian but, in disguise, a Jew in the eyes of Rachel. Both the chemistry he shares with Kurzak and the uneasiness of his disguise alongside Alagna is palpable. This same strength of shared, in-tune connection between the principals shone in both acting and vocal ensemble blending.

The gaping discrimination and authority of the Church was in perfect hands with Ain Anger as Cardinal Brogni. Hulking in physical presence and vocal force, Anger's strength rested in his portrayal of a near emotionless heart with a voice full of dark forbidding tones, almost uncoloured, even and richly resonant.

Aleksandra Kurzak and Tareq Nazmi
As Léopold's elegant eyeing wife Eudoxie, Vera-Lotte Böcker gave a mightily resplendent performance to a vocally rich role. Böcker's deep-centred crystalline soprano, lace like ornamentation and emotive shading excelled and she stood assured alongside Kurzak's Rachel as a wonderful mirroring counterpart. In the three duets they share, the harmonisation is impeccable even when singing without sight of each other. Two smaller roles were masterfully filled by the emotively alive and powerful voices of Johannes Kammler as the brutish Ruggiero and Tareq Nazmi as the blank Albert.

Halévy's music sits in the style of Donizetti and Verdi, more Italian than French, but this four-act work has its own unique qualities. The opening act begins with an organ solo that draws you into a sacred place and then collides with a huge orchestral outburst. It continues with a strong chorus component and is sung through with just one extended aria. The following two acts turn the cogs of interpersonal agendas to include numerous arias and duets accompanied by solo or paired instruments (like the dramatic duet between Rachel and Eudoxie with just cello and horn). The third act finishes with a brilliantly large assembly of heaving voices and high drama while the final act's structure seems to blend that of the first three into a more balanced brew that boils to the fatal outcome.

The chorus of the Bayerische Staatsoper were a significant presence throughout, creating stunningly rich and undulating momentum, vocally sure but often cloudy in diction. The Bayerisches Staatsorchester excelled, emanating comforting confidence under the baton of conductor Bertrand de Billy, who brought a sumptuous and effectively paced reading to Halévy's score.

Originally set in Constance in the early 15th century (near the present day German-Swiss border) Bieito gives the work a non-specific location. Rebecca Ringst's single-concept set design is an impenetrable high monumental wall traversing the stage, appearing as much of concrete as it does of steel. It's pushed and pulled by the chorus of citizens on a rotate into various positions to divide the stage, symbolising the struggle between a community of religious differences. Despite being blanketed in depths of darkness, the performers never feel lost in Michael Bauer's Rembrandt-like lighting effects that allow the soloists to glow. In the charcoal and grey conservatively suited and dressed cast, Ingo Krügler's effective costumes camouflage differences in beliefs. Furthermore, wearing blindfolds, the citizens are led to act brutally and in a way that they're unable to see through their actions.

Tareq Nazmi, Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak
Like the music of its era, Halévy writes with plenty of moments that lead the audience to an applause. There wasn't a the lack of sensational singing, but suddenly here, the highly engaged Bayerische Staatsoper audience were first oddly silent, then hesitantly warm before liberating themselves completely. In the end, there was a huge ovation for the singers, the conductor and musicians and little doubt that they were astonished at the performance of this generally unfamiliar work. Halévy equally would be astonished to hear his La Juive sung so splendidly by the entire cast and realised with such poignancy and power.

Bayerische Staatsoper
Nationale Theater

Production photographs: Wilfried Hösl

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