by Jacques Fromental Halévy
"La Juive" was premiered in 1835, one of the first Grand Opéra ever to be staged. Jacques Fromental's father was from Bavaria, but he was born in Paris, in 1799, and he used the surname Lévy until 1807, when the family changed it to Halévy. One year before that, Jacques was accepted in the Conservatory of Paris, when he was a student of Cherubini, among others. At only 17 years old, we won Roma Second Prize, and at 19, the First Prize. However, his bureaucratic career was even more distinguished than his musical efforts. At 35 years old he was a teacher of counterpoint, and a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. However his nine operas have not been succesful. Today we are familiar only with "Clari" (premiered by Maria Malibran in 1828), in the recording by Cecilia Bartoli.
Understandably, Halévy was not happy with this sad state of affairs. In a chance encounter with Scribe, the famous librettist, he is informed about a libretto without a composer. The story immediately fascinated Halévy, that can see the dramatic possibilities, and how to take advantage of a character as Machiavellian as Eleazar.
He decides to work in isolation during one year, at home, in his desk at the Opera House and in the manors of some friends. The result?. The audience just give a detached applause. Not even some great singers like Adolphe Nourrit (Eléazar), Cornelie Falcon (Rachel), Julie Dorus-Gras (Eudoxie) and Nicholas Levasseur (Brogni) can boost the show. Some people even commented that the music was playing second fiddle to the staging. However, after the first performances, "La Juive" is gaining more recognition, little by little.
This is what some important composers said about the opera:
Berlioz will even include Eleazar's aria "Rachel, quand du Seigneur", as one of the examples in his "Treatise on Instrumentation".
"La Juive" was being performed everywhere. By the mid 1840s it reached the 100 performances at Paris Opera, and was the first piece performed at Palais Garnier in 1875. In 1845 it was performed in New York, where there have been productions in French, Italian, German, Russian and Yiddish. Great singers like Rosa Ponselle and Enrico Caruso sang the opera. It was, by the way, the last opera ever performed by Caruso, in the role of Eleazar:
But the decline of Grand Opéra, the ascent of Late Romantic style and also the growing of anti-Semitic feelings across Europe, were undermining the popularity of "La Juive". When the Nazi party grabbed the power in Germany, it was the end for this opera. Until well into the 1960s, with the effort of the American tenor Richard Tucker, "La Juive" is not even performed. Not that it has ever entered the repertory again. Just a few performances here and there... Until 2007 it was not staged again in Paris.
Halévy wrote many operas, more than thirty. But none of them ever reached the quality and significance of "La Juive".