Review by Olivia Ruggiero
Halvéy’s opera La Juive is a tale interwoven with antithesis. Love and hatred, persecution and acceptance, peace and turmoil. Oliver Py’s production, set in 1930’s France, makes the story relevant to a modern audience. A reminder of the dark effects prejudice can have in society.
Upon leaving the theatre there was a sense of unease within me. I took 24 hours to process this production of La Juive. Sometimes art has to be processed because it doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t, as art should, stand on its own without explanation. But sometimes on a rare occasion, on a rare, wonderful occasion, art has to be processed because it is so profound, so moving, so fresh, different, and exciting that its impact will last long after your immediate experience is finished. Opera Australia’s La Juive is one such occasion.
Halévy’s score is incredibly easy to listen to – to a member of the general public, with no prior knowledge or love for opera it would be an enjoyable entrance into the realm of classical music. To an opera lover, musician, or devotee of the arts it is brilliantly composed. The use of leitmotif to underscore the romance of Léopald and Rachel, the dissonance in orchestral and vocal harmonies to highlight the disparaging of faith, the countermelodies that reflect the juxtaposition of the religions and the incredible contrast between heightened moments of drama featuring choral work, and intimate of moments of adoration and pain are somehow all so cohesively intertwined in this glorious score.
Paul Fitzsimon and the Opera Australia chorus deserve every accolade and every inch of applause that the audience has to offer in every performance. They are flawless. Halévy gives them so much to work with and they do not disappoint. From their first acapella entrance offstage, to their last appearance, all clad in black, in the upper circle of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, their sound moves through the audience with immense beauty. They are haunting as they sing their Latin “Christian” chants and perfectly encapsulate a prejudiced crowd so controlled in their hatred and resolute in their beliefs. Their calmness as they watch Rachel enter the flames, from their perched seats is a stroke of genius by revival director Constantine Costi. It forces the audience to live their experience, to be a part of the atrocity and compliant in the murder of Rachel and Eléazar. They are a witness, as are the audience to the judgement that is passed. It is a moment that will leave you speechless, without breath and with a hollow pit in your stomach.
Carlo Montanaro leads the Opera Australia Orchestra with experience and ease. This is an orchestra, that under the baton of their conductor does a stunning job at following the singers, allowing them shine, whilst taking nothing away from their own magnificence. They don’t just play the score, they feel it. Every fermata, every trill, pizzicato, staccato and phrase is imbued with emotion and feeling. They demonstrate rich contrast in their dynamics, tone quality and expressiveness. A delight to listen too.
Natalie Aroyan brings warmth to the role of Rachel, not just in her presence but also in her vocal tone. She demonstrates a remarkable ability to alternate between a heavy chest sound in her lower register and a rich, open sound in her soprano work. Here, we have an opera singer who will unashamedly use all of the different facets of her voice to bring colour to the role. She is unafraid to create harsh, harrowing sounds just as much as she uses the beauty of her classical technique. She does not let the pursuit for vocal perfection cloud her acting ability. She lets the score and her incredible musicality drive her intentions as Rachel to create a believable and moving portrayal. It is wonderful to see Australian talent shining so brilliantly on the Opera House stage. Rachel is the heart of the show, the opera rides on her shoulder and Aroyan does not falter. She is exquisite.
Diego Torre is phenomenal as Eléazar. He sings with one voice – from the very bottom of his register to the top – it flows, effortlessly and with superb quality. His rendition of “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” is a masterclass in musicality. He demonstrates the allusive ability to stand and deliver – deliver vocal bliss and believable choices. This aria was the highlight of the show.
Esther Song is a force. She excels in her coloratura work and gosh – does she have fun doing it. She embraces the frivolity and flippancy of the character so well. She struggles more in her duet with Rachel, “Ah que ma voix plaintive”, to find her footing as a dramatic actress but she certainly does not struggle vocally. Her voice blends so beautifully with Aroyan’s and I look forward to seeing more of her on our stages.
Francisco Brito is a chameleon, he is a Léopold that you fall in love with upon first meeting, and by the end of the second Act you detest him. His character development is strong and vocally he soars.
The role of the Cardinal is tricky – it is under developed in the libretto and as a result it can leave the ending of the opera feeling shallow. Parkin does a wonderful job at creating depth to his role. He is earnest and resolute in his performance. The bass work required for the role is not out of his reach and yet he lacks vocal colour in some of his lower notes.
This is a musically complex score, with duets, trios, quartets, and quintets that demand much of a vocalist and these soloists do well to rise to the occasion. They deliver brilliant solo performances as well as working harmoniously. It is a well-balanced cast, with a rich array of Australian talent, all of whom demonstrate their abilities superbly.
The monochromatic tones in the set and costume design by Pierre-André Weitz are well-suited to this production and it’s the time period in which it is set. Overall, the costumes may not be “lavish” but they are accurate to the production and sombre mood of the opera. The set design is clever as it revolves around the characters creating a sense of spinning – spinning out of control as worlds unravel, spinning webs of lie, deception and deceit – and more so it spins slowly as though everything is happening at an agonising pace. The winter scenes, bare trees and snowfall that happen are chilling reminders of the cold harsh judgement passed. The lighting design works well with this, with subtle changes that heighten the tension of the piece. The use of chiaroscuro is visually stunning but also adds meaning to the work. This production design, is cohesive and modern.
Constantine Costi’s direction will enrapture, engage and ensnare you in this stunning revival of La Juive. He understands the great juxtaposition that Halvéy’s score musically articulates. Visually striking tableau’s from this production are etched into my mind. The entrance of the Cardinal, seemingly enshrouded by light in Act 1 as the chorus congregates around him like a devoted Christian choir. A trio of Rachel, Léopold and Eléazar as they are cursed to their fate in Act III. Costi’s attention to detail and respect for the work cannot be understated. Rachel lighting the candle at Passover is a seemingly tiny detail, but to understand that a woman traditionally lights the candles at Passover is what makes this production work. It is the reverence and care in how it is handled that makes it special. It would be wonderful to see what Costi could achieve with a production of his own. To be given a production not to revive but to develop, to work with his own creative team to craft something and allow his own creativity to thrive – I think we might be witness to something modern, exciting, relevant and new.
This production is not flawless, there are moments of stillness that could be driven with more intention, there are ideas and characters that could be further developed but it’s also fraught with brilliance, talent and heart.
Diego Torre’s rendition of “Rachel quand du Seigneur” alone is worth the price of a ticket. The work of the Opera Australia Chorus alone is worth the price of a ticket (a premium reserve ticket).
Carlo Montanaro and the Opera Australia Orchestra alone are worth the price of a ticket. Natalie Aroyan’s portrayal of Rachel alone is worth the price of a ticket.
The direction and production design alone are worth the price of a ticket.
In short, do yourself a favour and buy a ticket.