The paradox of Halévy is that his single operatic success in a long career must rank as one of the most influential works written by a composer who one could almost, if cruelly, describe as an amateur, albeit a highly trained one! Clearly this is one of those cases where a particular inspiration strikes the right person at the right time in the right place, and leads to the creation of something that its creator probably hardly understood himself and could certainly never even remotely match again in his life.
The extraordinary impact of La Juive can obviously in some sense be tied simply to the depth of feeling which the depiction of a Jew discriminated against and tormented aroused in Halévy. But that is probably a rather 20th century perspective. We have to remember that when Halévy created his depiction of Eleazar, the presentation of a tragic individual from a real as opposed to a mythical milieu was not common in opera, though it was part of the rediscovery of Shakespeare under the influence of Romanticism. It was of course common in Shakespeare, and the link with Shylock is obvious, especially as both men achieve tragic dimensions despite (or because of) – in any case, simultaneously with being difficult, stubborn and sometimes deeply unattractive figures. But the humanity of this figure, set off against the relatively conventional trappings of a Bel Canto opera that surround him, is a remarkable achievement, though it is pre-dated by Rossini – a masterfully professional composer of course – who created one of the greatest human heroes from “real life”, Guillaume Tell, in 1829.
The second area in which La Juive was extremely influential was in its development of the Grand Opéra structure, which is almost a kind of paradoxical joke since Halévy’s sense of structure and ability to control the vast edifice which he erected is minimal. He created a great sprawling mess of a work which is, in its entirety, completely unperformable today, not by any means simply because we could not bear to sit in the theatre for that long, but because the content nowhere near matches up to the length at which it is elaborated, the transitions are embarrassingly clumsy, the invention is patchy and the whole is a great deal less than the sum of its parts. Nonetheless, Halévy is at least partly responsible, together with his contemporary, Meyerbeer, for originating the style of Grand Opéra, based around the 5 Act division, each culminating in vast ensembles bringing together the particular blend of the public and the private that was its essential subject. Wagner rather reluctantly acknowledged his debt to La Juive (1835) and, at the time as a semi-amateur composer himself, set off to create his own rambling juggernaut of an unperformable score, the proto-Fascist Rienzi – also of course a hero from real, as opposed to mythical origins.(completed 1840)
The other area in which Grand Opéra broke new ground was in its attention to “effects” and the relationship between music and the stage picture. And here again, many composers including Halévy’s immediate competitor and the master of this genre, Meyerbeer, indicated their debt to Halévy in looking at the way that music and scenic depiction marched hand in hand. The funeral march from the end of La Juive is frequently cited in this case, and from there one can look directly ahead to Siegfried’s funeral march in Götterdämerung. Indeed, the libretto of Götterdämerung – written first of the Ring operas, so before Wagner’s rapidly evolving aesthetic had radically changed his approach, is clearly a libretto written under the influence of Halévy’s conception of “Grand Opéra” with its wedding chorus, funeral march, and grand, catastrophic scenic dénouement. The whole apparatus of Grand Opéra with its realistic depiction of moonlight, its off-stage musical effects, its extended ballets, its marches, processions and scenic coups such as the double immolation scene at the end of La Juive suggests that the details have started to take over from the substance, and indeed that is partly true, especially if you adopt a purist attitude and go back to look at Glück, as Berlioz and Wagner did. But Berlioz was influenced by Halévy too, and Les Troyens is clearly a Grand Opéra in Halévy’s image, disciplined however by Berlioz’s Gluckian rigour.
La Juive, however, lacks that rigour, and in surrounding inspiration with carelessness and negligence is essentially an opera of sublime moments surrounded by acres of trash, and you could blame Halévy for setting in motion a trend that lead to many similarly dispensable works. But in fairness you would have to say that without Halévy you might not have had Verdi’s French masterpiece, Don Carlo, or indeed Aida, two of the greatest works of the 19th century. Verdi called the Paris Opéra “La Grande Boutique” and indeed it is quite helpful to look at a piece like La Juive as a sort of operatic department store: it is a mixture of the commercially banal with the inspired, dressed up in a lot of prettified and decorative trappings.
This sits, it has to be said, a little uneasily with our post-Holocaust sensibilities about the persecution of Jews. Can one turn that subject into a kind of “block-buster” whose modern day equivalent would be something like “Avatar” – the triumph of digital scenery over content? This was the aspect that lead us to re-locate La Juive into a world where the “prettiness” and sometimes triviality of the music was not something to apologise for or be embarrassed about, but was actually part of the horror.
The Dreyfus Affair was of course the moment in French history where latent anti-Semitism was “outed” and emerged as a very public scar on the face of the opulent society of the 3éme République. This was a society which indulged in extravagant public consumption, highly visible fashion, in short the full apparatus of Haute Bourgeois culture. And Dreyfus himself was a well connected and wealthy member of this society. Throughout the whole affair, which dragged on for years – from 1894 – 2006! - he remained as much concerned about his rights as a French citizen as about his situation as a Jew, and nothing more sharply illuminated the hollowness of this grand Bourgeois façade than the speed with which racist bile and hatred welled up out of the sewers and into the sumptuous Parisian salons. The effect was to last well into the 20th century, and it is possible to argue that the dreaded French Milice who in the 1940s rounded up thousands of Jews without needing encouragement from the Germans, were enacting the final scene of the Dreyfus drama.
The Dreyfus affair therefore plays itself out in a visual context of prettified fashion and decorative surroundings that chimes perfectly with the insouciant innocence and banality of much of the music of La Juive. This combination of jaunty musical content and horrific persecution was of course to reach its apogee on the ramp at Auschwitz. But alongside Dreyfus there was another figure of this epoch whose visual language continues to delight us, and whose subject matter chimes quite beautifully with the commercially important element of Ballet in all Grand Opéras: Degas. Degas, with his rediscovery of the soft and intimate material of the pastel crayon was the artist above all others who placed on record the world of “Les Petit Rats” – the girls of the Paris Opéra Ballet who were themselves figures on a particular floor of the Grand Boutique where, in a very discreet way of course, little girls were for sale. The specific placement of the Ballet in Grand Opéra, (which Wagner disastrously ignored, leading to the Tannhauser fiasco) at a point in the third act when the members of the Jockey Club could be presumed to have finished their dinner clearly indicates that the “consumption” of these scantily clad girls was of more importance to this section of the audience then any element of dramatic integrity, and Halévy, unlike Wagner, duly complied. Today Degas’ exquisite drawings of dancers, perhaps unintentional images of sublimated child abuse, decorate countless chocolate boxes and soap packets, but there was another deep irony about this refined, decorative draughtsman: he was a virulent Dreyfus hater and anti-Semite. Just what virulent anti-Semitism meant in this period you will see: the caricatures of Jews which are paraded in this production are all taken from real historical cartoons and posters. There is no pastel delicacy about them!
This then was the way in which we sought to reconcile musical style and subject matter. By showing this prettified “costume-drama” world as the façade behind which racist hatred lurked and festered, I hope we present a truth which is at the heart of Halévy’s flawed but passionate work, and documents a tragic aspect of our culture where all the civilisation, style and sophistication of Parisian culture was just a gauze draped over a horror.