La Juive

Diego-Torre-as-Eléazar-Natalie-Aroyan-as-Rachel-and-Francisco-Brito-as-Leopold-in-Opera-Australia’s-2022-production-of-La-Juive-at-the-Sydney-Opera-House-photo-by-Prudence-UptonA grand opera in five acts, La Juive (The Jewess) was one of the most popular and admired operas of the 19th Century, regularly produced in opera houses around the world. It fell out of popularity around 1936, possibly because of its theme highlighting conflict between Judaism and Christianity, neither of which come off very well in Eugene Scribe’s libretto.

This month Opera Australia achieved a long held ambition of Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini, to add this opera to its repertoire. It’s easy to see why. Not only does the opera have a gripping storyline, it also has a melodious score, filled with beautiful arias, lush duets, trios and rousing choruses, and also, a series of leading roles perfect for showcasing the richness of Opera Australia’s current roster of leading singers.

Focussing on Jewess, Rachel, portrayed in a striking, gloriously sung performance by Natalie Aroyan, who with this role, together with her recent remarkable performance in Attila, is rapidly becoming recognised as one of the country’s most accomplished and thrilling dramatic sopranos.

Rachel falls in love with a mysterious stranger, Leopold. This role was originally programmed for rising young Australian tenor, Shanul Sharma, but is performed with distinction for this season by Argentinian tenor, Francisco Brito. Leopold, unbeknown to Rachel, is a Christian, but is also in a relationship with a wealthy princess, Princess Eudoxie (Esther Song).

When Rachel learns of Leopold’s Christianity, she’s horrified. Not only because of her own strong Jewish upbringing, but also because her domineering father is a wealthy Jewish goldsmith, Eleazar, who refuses to bow to Christian laws, and who she knows would certainly not sanction such a relationship.

Eleazar provides Diego Torre with one of his best roles to date, and he performs it with his trademark intensity, singing so magnificently that his stunning rendition of the aria, Rachel, quand du Seigneur, sung towards the end of the opera, was rewarded with excited cheers and ecstatic applause from the first night audience.

Despite the obvious impediments, Rachel succumbs to Leopold’s pleadings and decides to disobey her father, denounce her religion and run away with him. That is until she discovers, at a celebration to welcome Leopold home and announce his engagement to Princess Eudoxie, that Leopold has been two-timing her with the princess.

Devastated by Leopold’s unfaithfulness, Rachel exposes their relationship to the gathering, thereby insuring certain death for herself, her father and Leopold, as well as delivering a nasty surprise to the startled princess.

For this first production in Australia, a co-production with Opera national de Lyon, the director and designer have moved the action to 1930’s France, represented by an imposing, constantly revolving setting designed by Pierre-Andre Weitz, who also designed the rather drab costuming.

The setting includes a huge, ever-present staircase, which creaks distractingly and unfortunately is reminiscent of the setting for Otello currently running in repertory with this production. The monotone drabness of the costumes and setting is offset by dramatic chiaroscuro lighting which creates a striking, ever-changing environment for the action.

Among the many pleasures of this production is the performance of rising young lyric coloratura soprano, Esther Song, making her role debut as Princess Eudoxie. Despite being hampered by an unflattering costume obviously designed for a different body type, and some uncomfortable direction involving red stockings, still managed to thrill with her luscious soprano confidently tossing off the stratospheric complexities inherent in her arias, and marking her as a singer with an exciting future.

Others to impress was David Parkin as the troubled Cardinal Brogni, whose rumbling basso profondo and towering presence has rarely been show-cased to better effect than in the opportunities offered with this role, and Andrew Moran as the villainous accuser, Ruggiero.

Similarly, the magnificent Opera Australia chorus, which has covered itself in laurels this season, and for which this opera offers many more opportunities than most, which rose to the challenges magnificently, especially in the final act where they sing from the highest balconies in the auditorium to stunning effect.

And a particular shout out to conductor, Carlo Montanaro, for his spirited harnessing of all the resources necessary for this huge production, including the thrilling Opera Australia Orchestra, to deliver a triumphant unveiling of this neglected masterpiece.

La Juive
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Wednesday 9 March 2022
Season continues to 26 March 2022
Information and Bookings:

Image: Diego Torre as Eléazar, Natalie Aroyan as Rachel and Francisco Brito as Leopold in Opera Australia’s 2022 production of La Juive at the Sydney Opera House – photo by Prudence Upton

Review: Bill Stephens OAM