The Origins of Hate: La Juive at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Halévy – La Juive

Rachel – Aleksandra Kurzak
Éléazar – Roberto Alagna
le prince Léopold – John Osborn
la princesse Eudoxie – Vera-Lotte Böcker
Gian Francesco, cardinal de Brogni – Ain Anger
Ruggiero – Johannes Kammler
Albert – Tareq Nazmi
le Héraut d’armes de l’Empereur – Christian Rieger
l’Exécuteur – Peter Lobert

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Bertrand de Billy.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich, Germany.  Sunday, June 26th, 2016.

At a time where those of us who have made the United Kingdom our home are extremely worried about the future, Calixto Bieito’s staging of La Juive seemed extremely apposite.  In that beacon of multiculturalism, the world capital of London England, the Polish cultural centre was daubed with racist graffiti, doctors are being told to ‘go home’ and children are terrified to go to school.  This blind, unthinking hate of the ‘other’ is a key tenet of Bieito’s staging and one that could not be more of today.  In a way, it could be said that he sets it out a little too obviously – we are introduced to the Christians as a blindfolded, unthinking mob.  In common with his recent ENO Forza, rather than a group of individuals, as he has so often given us in the past, here we have a monolithic group who move and exist in formation, unwilling to break out of the pattern.  When they do break out to whip Rachel with tree branches, they become a horrific mass of terror.  This is an exceptionally powerful image, that of turning on the ‘other’, one that I just cannot get out of my mind.

Ensemble © Wilfried Hösl
Ensemble © Wilfried Hösl

In a way, Bieito removes la Juive from La Juive.  Éléazar’s community isn’t a visibly Jewish one except in how it refers to itself through the libretto; rather Rachel distinguishes herself from the mob by her colourful green dress, the only real colour on an otherwise visually uniform stage.  I can see how the lack of colour could grate on some, but I do feel that in presenting this visually-monotonous world, Bieito makes his point even more forcefully.  Likewise, one could say that by attempting the universalize the work and making it less about two traditionally visually different religious communities and more about two communities who are separated only by their interpretation of what god is, Bieito really succeeds in bringing home how completely irrational hate between people is.  That’s not to say that he denies the work’s essential Jewishness: it’s all-present in the music and I must say that the way Roberto Alagna sang Éléazar’s Pesach prayer had me in tears – it really did feel so fundamentally Jewish; likewise the playing of the cors anglais at the opening of ‘Rachel, quand du seigneur’ was so deeply moving.

Ensemble © Wilfried Hösl
Ensemble © Wilfried Hösl

Surprisingly, perhaps, Bieito plays the finale relatively straight – we see Rachel burned alive and we are left with a sense of ambiguity in Éléazar’s fate.  Where Bieito does innovate is in the relationship between Rachel and the Princesse Eudoxie.  The two are seen as very similar – bringing together what unites rather than what separates them, and are both physically quite close from the start.

John Osborn, Aleksandra Kurzak © Wilfried Hösl
John Osborn, Aleksandra Kurzak © Wilfried Hösl

Aleksandra Kurzak’s Rachel brought all of her bel canto sensibility to the part.  She was originally scheduled to sing Eudoxie but switched to Rachel when the originally-cast Kristīne Opolais withdrew.  At first I feared that Kurzak’s soprano would be slightly small for a role that requires some real heft at the top of the voice and it’s true that there were some moments in the duet at the end of Act 2 where it felt that she was sailing close to the limit.  And yet, her singing gave an immense amount of pleasure.  Her legato was absolutely immaculate and she gave us some beautifully-placed pianissimi at the top of the voice.  Her diction was slightly foggy but her fearless vocalism really was astounding.  This was something special indeed.

Roberto Alagna © Wilfried Hösl
Roberto Alagna © Wilfried Hösl

Roberto Alagna’s native diction was a pleasure to hear in the role of Éléazar, he invested everything he sang with real feeling and used the text to really bring his character to life.  His ‘Rachel, quand du seigneur’ was sung with long phrases and genuine feeling.  In the prayer ‘o dieu de nos pères’ both he and Kurzak were absolutely ravishing.  I do however feel the role sits slightly too high for him, he got through ‘dieu m’éclaire’ on sheer willpower.  That said, his honest singing and engaging stage presence together with his ability to make the most of the text really did make for a remarkable experience.

Ensemble © Wilfried Hösl
Ensemble © Wilfried Hösl

Vera-Lotte Böcker is new to me and she has already sung the role of Eudoxie in Mannheim.  Hers is an attractive, bright soprano, light but with an ability to colour phrases with the voice.  She has an easy top, a respectable trill and she’s a compelling actress.  If only she could sharpen her diction as words were often lost.  Certainly a voice I’d like to hear again – her Zerbinetta I imagine would be a knock-out.  Ain Anger brought his usual massive voice to Brogni.  It’s a handsome sound, with an attractive vibrato, strong bottom and good legato.  His diction was also more than respectable.

Aleksandra Kurzak, John Osborn, Roberto Alagna © Wilfried Hösl
Aleksandra Kurzak, John Osborn, Roberto Alagna © Wilfried Hösl

John Osborn brought his customary musicality to the role of Léopold.  His guitar-accompanied serenade in the first act was elegantly sung and he was fearless in his attack at the very top.  He also gave an impressive hairpin at the top of the voice in his Act 2 duet with Rachel.  His diction was clear although the diphthongs could be tightened up slightly.  What I found tonight was a lack of variety in tone colouring but that could just have been the role.  In the remainder of the cast, I was very impressed by Johannes Kammler’s Ruggiero.  His is a handsome voice that carries well and is absolutely even from top to bottom.  His diction is also impressive.

Ensemble © Wilfried Hösl
Ensemble © Wilfried Hösl

Sadly the diction of the ladies and gentlemen of the Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper was, what I would politely call, incomprehensible.  They did however make a fantastic sound – what a fabulous group they are.  The blend is excellent and they made a massive noise when they needed to.  It seems churlish to complain that the sopranos undershot a few times but otherwise they sang extremely well.  The orchestra also played well for Bertrand de Billy, some sour intonation in the cellos notwithstanding.  De Billy really did have the measure of the score – all of his tempi felt absolutely right.  His was a swift reading but when he pulled back, in the prayer for example, he created some unbearably beautiful moments.  He was a sensitive accompanist, always allowing the singers through.

Aleksandra Kurzak, Johannes Kammler © Wilfried Hösl
Aleksandra Kurzak, Johannes Kammler © Wilfried Hösl

Tonight gave us a gripping and compelling evening of opera.  It was decently sung and certainly as far as the ladies were concerned, much more than that.  Kurzak really demonstrated how important a bel canto technique is in being able to sing healthily.  Perhaps, more work could have been done on diction within some of the cast – Alagna of course excepted.  That said, at a time when those of us privileged to have grown up in multicultural societies are worried about the future, tonight’s staging really did give much to think about.  Yes, hate is blind but hate is always about the ‘other’.  What separates us however is often so much smaller than what unites us.  Bieito’s vision may be initially bleak but in this respect he does actually offer us some comfort and hope for the future.

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