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Operatic Exhumation : Inland Empire Goes Grand With 'La Juive'

December 07, 1985|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

There was a time, many moons ago, when Jacques Francois Halevy's "La Juive"--a.k.a. "The Jewess"--was a prized staple of the standard repertory.

Halevy may be best known today as the uncle of the co-librettist of "Carmen." In his day, however, he was regarded as an operatic giant. None other than Richard Wagner found in "La Juive" "the pathos of high lyric tragedy."

This oh-so-grand and Gallic extravaganza, first performed in Paris in 1835, had everything: heroic passion, amorous sentiment, religious fervor, quaint blood and gore, picturesque piety, period prettiness, interpolated ballet, nice tunes, momentous ensembles, orchestral gush and rewarding roles for five vocal virtuosos.

The most rewarding role of all was that of Eleazar, the wealthy, persecuted, noble, agonized goldsmith who, after a respectable delay, gets to sing the dramatic hit aria "Rachel, quand du Seigneur."

Caruso liked to sing the role--and did so at the last performance of his life (Metropolitan Opera, 1920). Martinelli liked to sing it--and did so at the last performances of "La Juive" in New York (Metropolitan Opera, 1936) and on the West Coast (San Francisco Opera, 1936). Richard Tucker liked to sing it--and did so at the last performance of the opera on an American stage (New Orleans, 1973).

Eugene Scribe's marvelously convoluted libretto deals, in precious rhyme, with quasi-historical conflicts in 15th-Century Constance. The spotless Rachel (dramatic soprano capable of coloratura flights) thinks she is the daughter of Eleazar. Actually she is the daughter of the bigoted Cardinal Brogni (booming basso). Rachel loves Leopold, the disguised prince of the Empire (light, very high-flying tenor) and refuses to betray him. Brogni condemns Rachel to death. Just as she is thrown into a boiling caldron, Eleazar reveals her true identity to the Cardinal. On the way to Eleazar's execution, the Cardinal repents.

The plot isn't very easy to follow.

One of the most memorable performances of the opera, incidentally, must have taken place in Chicago in the 1920s. A kindly stage manager reportedly wanted to spare Rosa Raisa, the Rachel, a hard landing when she took her terminal dunk. Therefore, he generously lined the bottom of the caldron with elastic materials. Unfortunately, this caused the hapless heroine to bounce back into view. And back, and back.

Somehow, the denouement didn't achieve its full tragic potential that famous night.

It is possible that a big, rich, resourceful, stylish, imaginative, well-directed opera company could make sense of "La Juive" in 1985. It is possible that the inherent romantic sentiment and melodic pathos still could enthrall, under the right conditions.

The conditions, unfortunately, aren't quite right in the super-Deco confines of Gardiner Spring Auditorium in Ontario, where the Opera Theatre of the Inland Empire (a.k.a. West End Opera) is beginning its 21st season with "La Juive."

One must be grateful for an opportunity--any opportunity--to see an actual performance of a work so important and so long neglected. One has to admire the ambition, the daring, the vision, the shear chutzpah of the endeavor.

It would be unrealistic, however, to pretend that the good Inlanders have been able to muster more than a rough approximation of "La Juive." Frank Fetta, the rather meek conductor, has whittled at least two hours from the 5-hour marathon. His small chorus and orchestra seem eager but amateurish. Lighting disasters minimize the dubious impact of shoestring sets by Covell Christian and motley costumes by Jean Blanchette. The staging, entrusted to Giorgio Tozzi, can go no further than awkward stand-and-pose cliches. (One has to wonder what an artist of Tozzi's stature is doing in a place like this anyway.)

It should be noted that the performance attended on Thursday was originally heralded as the opening night. When preparations lagged and ticket sales sagged, however, the management decided to call this performance an open dress rehearsal (admission $5). The now-official premiere takes place tonight.

One must make allowances for the inevitable gaffes, gaps and jitters that compromised poor Halevy at the run-through. Even with such allowances, however, it seems unwise to expect miraculous improvements.

At the dress rehearsal, the hard-working, modestly equipped cast tried valiantly to overcome hurdles that might daunt superstars. In vain.

Christopher Lachonas sang Eleazar's music with primitive ardor, hardly acted at all. Michael Li-Paz displayed firm tone and flaccid expression in the rhetoric of the Cardinal. Arlene Brundage brought a sweet soubrette soprano to the heavy-duty demands of Rachel. Dennis Heath's Gilbert-and-Sullivan tenor evaporated in the bravura outbursts of Leopold. Linda Shankel as the florid Princess Eudoxia looked pert and sounded tight.

Everyone seemed to be articulating Tozzi's prosaic English translation carefully. Given the fuzzy acoustic of 2,100-seat WPA-era auditorium, one couldn't be sure.

The Opera Theatre of the Inland Empire returns to terra more firma in April with "La Traviata." Libiamo . . . .

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