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15.12.03

La Juive and, once again, Proust

It was great to hear the live performance of Halévy's opera La Juive from the Met on the radio this past Saturday (see my post on November 15 and take a look at the great information on La Juive from the Met). The cast gave an excellent performance, particularly Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski (Rachel), Neil Shicoff (Eléazar), and the stupendous bass Ferruccio Furlanetto (Cardinal Brogni).

One of the things that appears necessary for modern performances of French grand opera is judicious cutting, and there is a lot missing from the Met's production of La Juive, all of which make good sense. In some cases the primary purpose of a cut is to eliminate unnecessary repetition or elaboration (some of the emotional shifts are dragged out by Scribe and Halévy for maximum dramatic effect). In others, it is to avoid the embarrassing nature of some of the opera's text, in particular, passages that would surely strike modern listeners as evoking the worst Jewish stereotypes. For example, the section cut out of the Act II trio of Eudoxie, Léopold, and Eléazar features the following lyrics for Eléazar, who clearly relishes the profits that will he will gain from the sale of a prized piece of historic jewelry to Princess Eudoxie (the translation is mine):

Je tremblais que cette femme
Ne surprit tous nos secrets
Et je maudissais dans l'âme
Tous ces chrétiens que je hais,
Mais pour moi plaisir extrême
Et quel heureux avenir,
Ces bons écus d'or que j'aime
Chez moi vont donc revenir!
Chez moi, chez moi des écus, des ducats.
Des ducats, des ducats, des florins,
quel plaisir de tromper ces chrétiens,
ah! quel plaisir, ah! quel plaisir
de tromper, tromper ces chrétiens
je les hais tous, je les hais tous,
ces ennemis, ces ennemis de mon Dieu de ma foi.
I was trembling that this woman
Would discover all our secrets
And I was cursing in my soul
All these Christians whom I hate,
But for me what great pleasure
And what a joyous future,
These good golden coins that I love
Are going to come back to me,
To me, to me, ecus, ducats,
Ducats, ducats, florins,
What pleasure to deceive these Christians,
ah! what pleasure, ah! what pleasure
to deceive, to deceive these Christians,
I hate them all, I hate them all,
these enemies, these enemies of my God and my faith.
Lest you thought you would get out of this without more Proust, listening to La Juive on Saturday made clear in my mind another of Proust's references to the opera that I hadn't really understood before. In the second book (À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleur in French; Within a Budding Grove in English) of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, the narrator's friend Bloch takes him for his first trip to a brothel, where he meets a prostitute to whom he gives an unusual nickname (I have altered Moncrieff's translation in some places):
It was about this period that Bloch overthrew my conception of the world and opened for me fresh possibilities of happiness (which, for that matter, were to change later on into possibilities of suffering), by assuring me that, in contradiction of what I believed at the time of my walks along the Méséglise way, women never asked for anything better than to make love. He completed this service by providing me a second, the value of which I was not to appreciate until much later; it was he who took me for the first time into a whorehouse. He had indeed told me that there were many pretty women whom one can have. But I could see them only in a vague outline for which whorehouses were to enable me to substitute actual human features.
[. . .]

The mistress of this house knew none of the women one asked her about and was always suggesting others whom one did not want. She boasted to me of one in particular, one of whom, with a smile full of promises (as though this had been a rarity and a special treat) she said: "She is a Jewess! Doesn’t that do it for you?" (That, by the way, was probably why she called her Rachel.) And with a silly and affected excitement which, she hoped, would prove contagious, and which ended in a hoarse gurgle, almost of orgasm: "Think of that, my boy, a Jewess! Wouldn’t that be lovely? Rah!" This Rachel, of whom I caught a glimpse without her seeing me, had dark hair, was not pretty, but had an air of intelligence, and not without passing the tip of her tongue over her lips, smiled with a look full of impertinence at the tricks who were introduced to her and whom I could hear making conversation with her. Her thin and narrow face was framed in short curls of black hair, irregular as though they were outlined in pen-strokes upon a wash-drawing in Indian ink. Every evening I promised the madame who offered her to me with a special insistence, boasting of her superior intelligence and her education, that I would not fail to come some day on purpose to make the acquaintance of Rachel, whom I had nicknamed "Rachel when from the Lord." But the first evening I had heard her, as she was leaving the house, say to the mistress: "That’s settled then; I shall be free to-morrow, if you have anyone you won’t forget to send for me."

And these words had prevented me from recognizing her as a person because they had made me classify her at once in a general category of women whose habit, common to all of them, was to come there in the evening to see whether there might not be a louis or two to be earned. She would simply vary her formula, saying indifferently: "If you want me" or "If you want anybody."
Marcel never manages to have a "date" with "Rachel when from the Lord," due to various circumstances, until finally he stops going to that particular house, because he donated to it some old furniture left to him by his aunt and is tortured with the guilt of having abandoned his aunt's furniture in such a place. This pathetic image of the prostitute asking if there are any tricks for her night after night is made all the more terrible when the narrator encounters "Rachel when from the Lord" next, in the third book (Le côté de chez Guermantes in French; The Guermantes Way in English). After hearing about his dear friend Saint-Loup's beloved mistress constantly from the time he first meets him on vacation in Balbec, Marcel finally meets her back in Paris and realizes with dread that she is "Rachel when from the Lord":
Suddenly Saint-Loup appeared, accompanied by his mistress, and then, in this woman who was for him all the love, every possible delight in life, whose personality, mysteriously enshrined in a body as in a tabernacle, was the object that still occupied incessantly the toiling imagination of my friend, whom he felt that he would never really know, as to whom he was perpetually asking himself what could be her secret self, behind the veil of eyes and flesh, in this woman I recognised at once "Rachel when from the Lord," her who, but a few years since—women change their position so rapidly in that world, when they do change—used to say to the procuress: "Tomorrow evening, then, if you want me for anyone, you will send round, won't you?"

And when they had "come round" for her, and she found herself alone in the room with the "anyone," she had known so well what was required of her that after locking the door, as a prudent woman's precaution or a ritual gesture, she would begin to take off all her things, as one does before the doctor who is going to sound one's chest, never stopping in the process unless the "someone," not caring for nudity, told her that she might keep on her shift, as specialists do sometimes who, having an extremely fine ear and being afraid of their patient's catching a chill, are satisfied with listening to his breathing and the beating of his heart through his shirt. On this woman whose whole life, all her thoughts, all her past, all the men who at one time or another had had her were to me so utterly unimportant that if she had begun to tell me about them I should have listened to her only out of politeness, and should barely have heard what she said, I felt that the anxiety, the torment, the love of Saint-Loup had been concentrated in such a way as to make—out of what was for me a mechanical toy, nothing more—the cause of endless suffering, the very object and reward of existence. Seeing these two elements separately (because I had known "Rachel when from the Lord" in a house of ill fame), I realized that many women for the sake of whom men live, suffer, take their lives, may be in themselves or for other people what Rachel was for me. The idea that anyone could be tormented by curiosity with regard to her life stupefied me. I could have told Robert of any number of her unchastities, which seemed to me the most uninteresting things in the world. And how they would have pained him! And what had he not given to learn them, without avail!

I realised also then all that the human imagination can put behind a little scrap of face, such as this girl's face was, if it is the imagination that was the first to know it; and conversely into what wretched elements, crudely material and utterly without value, might be decomposed what had been the inspiration of countless dreams if, on the contrary, it should be so to speak controverted by the slightest actual acquaintance. I saw that what had appeared to me to be not worth twenty francs when it had been offered to me for twenty francs in the house of ill fame, where it was then for me simply a woman desirous of earning twenty francs, might be worth more than a million, more than one's family, more than all the most coveted positions in life if one had begun by imagining her to embody a strange creature, interesting to know, difficult to seize and to hold. No doubt it was the same thin and narrow face that we saw, Robert and I. But we had arrived at it by two opposite ways, between which there was no communication, and we should never both see it from the same side. That face, with its stares, its smiles, the movements of its lips, I had known from outside as being simply that of a woman of the sort who for twenty francs would do anything that I asked. And so her stares, her smiles, the movements of her lips had seemed to me significant merely of the general actions of a class without any distinctive quality. And beneath them I should not have had the curiosity to look for a person. But what to me had in a sense been offered at the start, that consenting face, had been for Robert an ultimate goal towards which he had made his way through endless hopes and doubts, suspicions, dreams. He gave more than a million francs in order to have for himself, in order that there might not be offered to others what had been offered to me, as to all and sundry, for a score. [. . .] As for Rachel's favours, however, Saint-Loup had by mere accident succeeded in winning them all. Certainly if he had now learned that they had been offered to all the world for a louis, he would have suffered, of course, acutely, but would still have given a million francs for the right to keep them, for nothing that he might have learned could have made him emerge—since that is beyond human control and can be brought to pass only in spite of it by the action of some great natural law—from the path he was treading, from which that face could appear to him only through the web of the dreams that he had already spun. The immobility of that thin face, like that of a sheet of paper subjected to the colossal pressure of two atmospheres, seemed to me to be being maintained by two infinities which abutted on her without meeting, for she held them apart. And indeed, when Robert and I were both looking at her we did not both see her from the same side of the mystery.
What I finally realized is that "Rachel when from the Lord" is the not-so-well-translated first line of a famous aria from La Juive, "Rachel quand du Seigneur," sung by Eléazar in Act IV at what is, I think, the emotional climax of the opera:
Rachel, quand du seigneur
La grâce tutélaire
A mes tremblantes mains confia ton berceau,
J'avais à ton bonheur
Voué ma vie entière.
Et c'est moi qui te livre au bourreau.
Rachel, when the Lord's
Tutelary grace
Entrusted your cradle to my trembling hands,
To your happiness I had
Sworn my entire life.
And it is I who hand you over to the executioner.
In this slow, lilting minor-key aria, Eléazar contemplates what actions he will take in the final act: will he really be able to sacrifice his adopted daughter (Rachel) in order to punish the Christians who are persecuting him? Léopold will lose the woman he loves, and Cardinal Brogni will lose his daughter, who unbeknownst to him was saved from a fire by Eléazar years ago when she was a child, before he became a priest. On Saturday, Neil Shicoff gave an excellent and dramatically charged performance of this central piece in La Juive.

2 comments:

Noah said...

The notes in the new Penguin translations identify this aria and all kinds of other references, but I guess there's also something charming in discovering it yourself while listening to the opera.

Linda Miller said...

More charming for me who, whenever introduced to other Rachels, remembers the phrase and was always a la recherche of its source. Merci! And now off to find a recording of La Juive.