Halévy – La Juive

ONP - Bastille, Tuesday February 20 2007

Conductor: Daniel Oren. Production: Pierre Audi. Sets: George Tsypin. Costumes: Dagmar Niefind. Lighting: Jean Kalman. La princesse Eudoxie: Annick Massis. Rachel: Anna Caterina Antonacci. Éléazar: Chris Merritt. Le cardinal de Brogni: Robert Lloyd. Léopold: John Osborn. Ruggiero: André Heyboer. Albert: Vincent Pavesi. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

I always thought the secret of that rare event, an exciting evening at the opera, lay in everything, for once, being right: a great work, a great production, great acting, singing and playing... With La Juive at the Bastille we had an obscure work - not played here since 1934 - by an obscure composer, with a dreadful libretto; a dubious production; the scheduled tenor falling sick at the eleventh hour and some very dodgy singing by his replacement… Yet, opera being the exotic and irrational entertainment it is, the evening ended in triumph, even, more or less, for the stand-in.

The production was a strange beast. The stage, when the curtain went up, was fully occupied by a spectacular, built set. George Tsypin (who gave us the broken bottles seen in Sellars' Glyndebourne Theodora, or the weird, sci-fi-cum-jellyfish onion domes in the Kirov’s travelling Boris) covered the vast stage with a system of steel grids, over what looked like broken glass or litter, which could be lit from beneath in various colours: white, blue or, for the final scene, red.

Above this were three giant, Eiffel-inspired steel “cathedral” constructions, one behind the other: triangular roof frames bristling with pinnacles like Milan cathedral, iron stairs up the sides and three levels of gangway. These were on rails, enabling them to glide from side to side, and they could also be raised and lowered on cables. They were doubled, for act one, with a complex array of gleaming pipes – glass or metal, it was hard to see – reminiscent of an organ. At the rear was an opalescent backdrop recalling stained glass.

For Eléazar’s home, we had just the bare “Eiffel” steel, a long table and some chairs; for the imperial palace, the gleaming pipes suspended mid-air, without the steel, and some stepped bench seating for the chorus. For the prison, back to the steel, this time with the floor lowered to form a sinister kind of pit and the appearance of odd, glittering crystals scattered around, like the remains of snowmen after the thaw. And for the execution, the constructions and pipes disappeared altogether and there was just the giant grid on the floor, the whole of it turning red for the finish, with the chorus off to the side. Throughout, there was a sophisticated play of light (of various colours) and deep shade.

The Jews were costumed in the 1940s; the chorus and guards in an odd, half-Japanese, half-science-fiction style. Eudoxie, being a princess, naturally wore a full-length evening dress, with train, throughout. A small group of dancers had golden skulls and cream-coloured body stockings printed with gold skeletons.

But as the sets took up so much space, the action seemed squeezed in as an afterthought; and in any case, there was no directing as such: Audi let the singers stand and deliver, and the chorus filed in and stood in rectangular blocks. The Japanese or sci-fi elements in the costumes and tacked on to the sets were silly; and the gesticulating dancers, though quite sexy, were as irrelevant as the set. It was as if the singers performed La Juive in front of a spectacular production designed for Die Frau ohne Schatten: the different levels, the bridges, the pitch-darkness and magical lighting, the dancers who could well have been unborn children and fried fish...

As Shicoff had called in sick, Chris Merritt – originally scheduled to take over only in March - took his place. He had a catastrophic first act. I have never, never heard such awful tuning on stage. He tends to start under the note, but it isn't just a brief portamento: he stays under for half its value. Even if he gets a note right it can turn sour (he has a way of chewing on his vowels till they turn into diphthongs and as they do so, the tuning changes). In ensembles, with other people singing in tune, there were some excruciating moments and I think he very nearly threw the others off their own pitch. He bawled away at everything (with a vast, unruly vibrato) except the top notes, which were suddenly, in contrast, feeble (as well as off the note). His voice cracked and wobbled. Yet he managed to disguise some of these failings as acting the tragic old man, and in the end, though after Rachel, quand du seigneur there was a combattimento of boos v. cheers, I think he won people over through sheer tenacity, sincerity and conviction - battling though adversity, as it were, like an ageing boxer.

The rest of the cast were excellent. I'm not sure I ever heard such an ovation at the Bastille as for Annick Massis. She’s a soprano audibly in her prime; not a huge voice, but bright, limpid and healthy. Anna-Caterina Antonacci was on scorching form too: in perfect vocal and physical contrast to Massis, with a marvellous, complex, brushed-bronze timbre. On this second night, I didn't notice any of the fraying at the top that some complained of after the première.

John Osborn should have got far more cheers. He had all the notes, which is saying something. And why have people on the web been so rude about Robert Lloyd? The voice is old and sounded a bit tired towards the end, but you didn't need to look at the supertitles to tell what he was singing and to my ear all the notes were there - though the cavernous, fleshless timbre sounded a bit as if he had a cold. In anger or supplication he was nearly terrifying.

Just about the time I was starting to wish I were somewhere else, say from about halfway through, something clicked. Gradually you became aware that the cast were "in a zone" as sporting people say; there was almost palpable electricity in the air… This success – since in the end, success it certainly was - was clearly all down to the singers and - perhaps above all - to Daniel Oren: commitment to the work despite its failings, everyone working together, Merritt battling to overcome his deficiencies...

The orchestra (excellent last night) stayed on in the pit for ages to clap the singers and Oren. Audi was lightly booed: hardly surprising, since in front of that fancy, expensive set he seemed to have done next-to-nothing - a "Met"-style stand-and-deliver production in a gilded cage.

A good evening, then. Though I admit, I did find myself thinking how much better Don Carlos might have been...

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