An interview on NPR got me really interested in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Jacques Fromental Halévy's grand opera La Juive (premiered in Paris in 1835, with its U.S. premiere in New Orleans in 1844). It has long seemed somewhat of a mystery to me why French grand opera is not better liked at the Met, because these are works expressly made for flamboyant productions with grand historical backdrops. There is a bias of sorts at work, as seen in an early review of the production by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times (Retribution and Lust Collide in the Ghetto, November 8). After reviewing the negative reception this production received at the Vienna Staatsoper, he states:
Still, opera fans should be grateful for the chance to experience a work admired by Berlioz, Wagner and Mahler, among others. For all its French grand opera trappings, Halévy's 1835 work is indebted to the Italian bel canto tradition (imagine a Gallic-tinged Bellini) and prefigures the innovations of Gounod, Halévy's student, and Verdi.French grand opera trappings (bad) vs. Italian bel canto tradition (good). Gallic-tinged Bellini? If that's an endorsement, it should be no surprise that this is the first production of this famous opera at the Met since 1936. How could a work that was so famous, featuring the much-beloved final role of Enrico Caruso (see this page from Metropolitan Opera History on La Juive at the Met), simply disappear from the repertory? (For one thoughtful response to this question, see Philip Kennicott, La Juive's Hateful History, in the Washington Post, November 2.)
American tenor Neil Shicoff is responsible for bringing this production from Vienna, and he stars in Caruso's role, Eléazar (see picture above). In what was actually a long interview with NPR's Linda Wertheimer today, Shicoff explained his interest in the role and how he convinced the Met to let him sing the role again. Shicoff is the son of a Brooklyn cantor, Sidney Shicoff, who gave him his first musical training. (Halévy was also a cantor's son.) When he decided he did want to follow in his father's footsteps, he went to Juilliard and from there into the world of opera. Although I would love to go to New York to see this production, I think I will have to settle for listening to the live broadcast on the radio. Everyone within the sound of my voice should know about the ChevronTexaco Met Broadcast, which has been a Saturday tradition for over 60 years. If you just have to know what the Te deum sounds like as imagined by Halévy in the opening scene of La Juive (it is heard in the background as Eléazar and his daughter Rachel, the title character, are seen transacting business on a Christian holiday), turn on your radio at 1:00 pm on December 13. (You can see if there is a station that carries it in your listening area here. If you don't know about the Met broadcasts, you can order a free brochure and schedule here.) Halévy's opera is the first in the broadcast season, after a season preview on December 6.
If you weren't worried about the state of the arts in the United States before, you should be, in light of the fact that this is the final season of radio broadcasts that ChevronTexaco will sponsor from the Met (see their press release from May 2003). I have always praised this company and exempted it from criticism of big business and oil companies in particular, solely because of this sponsorship. The first live performance of opera that I ever heard, when I was in high school, was from the Met, and it was carried to my ears because of what was then Texaco. At the intermission, I heard people like Fr. Owen Lee, Edward Downes, William Weaver, and others talk with such knowledge and love about opera. It infected me, and I have never recovered. It is a terrible abandonment for ChevronTexaco to stop the funding of the Met broadcast, and it will be even worse if no other sponsor can be found. How will future opera lovers in small Michigan towns ever catch the bug?