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23 March, 2022

La Juive – Halevy, Sydney Opera House Sat matinée 12th March 2022

 Rachel – Natalie Aroyan

Eleazar – Diego Torre

Leopold (Samuel) – Francisco Brito

Princess Eudoxie – Esther Song

Cardinal de Brogni – David Parker

Conductor – Carlo Montenaro

 Here is a rare opportunity to see a 19th century Paris opera masterpiece in an enjoyable and original production with an exceptional cast.  Like a score of other composers this was one magnificent success out of many other failures (40 according to one source I read). 

 Although there is much, much more, opera fans must wait four acts to finally hear the famed tenor aria “Rachel, quand du Seigneur” in which Eleazar laments that after devoting his life to Rachel from the cradle he now he must deliver her to the executioner.  La Juive is a complex and harrowing story, not as consistent or profound as Merchant of Venice but with lots of twists and turns.  More than once a Jew turns out to be a gentile.   

 After big choral scenes, Latin mass extracts and dramatic revelations, the big tenor aria was sung with pathos and passion by Mr Torre (the short, racy but rarely performed cabaletta was omitted).  In the silence before act 5 there was a massive thump as about twenty clumps of shoes fell from height onto the full width of the stage.  It was one of the most shocking and unexpected ‘stunts’ I have seen on stage.  Due to their silvery grey colouring it was not immediately clear what the items comprised, at least from my seats in the front row of the circle.  Yet shoes they were, one of numerous reminders of the holocaust which was brewing in the period of this staging in 1930s France. 

 This story of religious devotion and prejudice is complex and sometimes contradictory.  At least three cast members are not who they seem to be.   But this is opera and each scene has strong characters in emotive situations with glorious lyrical vocals from huge Christian choruses to intimate farewells. 

 One reason this opera is so rarely performed is that there are two soprano parts, one dramatic and one coloratura.  Although written originally with Eleazar as a bass Halevy rewrote the part for the tenor so there are two big tenor roles as well.  Prince Leopold was ably played by Argentine Francisco Brito whose upper register rang out well both as the Prince and when dressed up to be the Jewish painter Samuel.  Local soprano Esther Song played Princess Eudoxie admirably.  David Parkin rose to the occasion at the Cardinal with some spare resonating low notes to his register. 

 Ms Aroyan, also a local, sang and acted with distinction, honourable to her father and her religion right to her immolation at the end when all is revealed just too late to save her (real) father’s anguish.  But this is opera.  As Bugs Bunny says: “Did you really expect a happy ending?”  What’s Opera Doc on Vimeo

 Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

 Aria y Cabaletta de Eleazar: Rachel quand du seigneur. - YouTube

 Neil Shicoff, tenor. Simone Young, conductor.  Vienna 1999. [cabaletta: ‘Dieu m’eclaire, fille chère’] 


10 March, 2022

Otello, Verdi, Sydney Opera House, Sat 19th Feb 2022. Follow-up notes.

 Dear Colleagues,

 My brief notes on Otello did not do justice to the piece which is one of the greatest works written for the operatic stage.  After further thought and some reading I offer the following observations about this work which I did not enjoy on first seeing it many years ago.  Leo Schofield used to distinguish the more ‘accessible’ works from those which were more profound yet less immediately appealing to some. 

Regarding The Moor of Venice I am now a devoted convert to both play and opera.  Discussion about Iago’s devious motivations, evidence, plot, history, etcetera goes on endlessly amongst experts … yet the basic theme of love, suspicion, jealousy and revenge are the relentless focus of this piece.  Boito’s libretto was such that they fully intended the opera to be called ‘Iago’ until the last stages of their collaboration when Verdi pushed for a return to ‘Otello’. 

The supposed rivalry between Wagner and Verdi was largely a fiction.  Born in the same year 1813, each rose to the top of their respective national schools of opera.  Furthermore both aimed at the perfect musical and vocal drama in their operas.  Living longer, Verdi came out of retirement at least twice to compose and revise 4 or more operas, Otello being second last to Falstaff, Verdi’s only mature comedy. 

Leitmotifs occur throughout Wagner’s operas yet Otello contains just one to my observation.  Otello’s love theme (or ‘another kiss’ as I call it) recurs three more times after its introduction in the act I love duet.  While many of Wagner’s musical motifs may go over the head of the average audience member, few would miss Verdi’s melody which is unmistakably linked to the love between Desdemona and Otello.  A similar device is used by Donizetti in Lucia di Lammermoor, another love theme which returns briefly but unmistakably in the Mad Scene. 

Boito was one of the very few composers who also wrote libretti (his revolutionary Mefistofele was first presented at La Scala in 1868).  He joins Wagner, Berlioz and Leoncavallo but uniquely, Boito also collaborated with others in successful operas.  His reduced version of Shakespeare’s Othello became a perfect foil for the elderly but enthusiastic Verdi. 

This brings us to the origin of the story which appears to be Cinthio’s 1565 ‘Un Capitano Moro’ (or “Disdemona and the Moor”) a short story which had not been translated into English until after Shakespeare’s time.  Along with many other pieces of evidence including the naming and feminist sentiments of Emilia in Othello, this has led some recent commentators to question whether William Shakespeare was presenting plays and sonnets originating from the pen of Emilia Lanier Bassano.  This fascinating woman came from a large Jewish musical family from northern Italy, several of whose members had been in the service of the court of Henry VIII.  See Atlantic article by Elizabeth Winkler Who Was Shakespeare? Could the Author Have Been a Woman? - The Atlantic

Now that should get people a-talking! 

Notes written by a still a-learning Andrew Byrne ..