Jacques François Fromental Éie Halévy (Elias Lévy, born Paris, 27 May 1799; died Nice, 17 March 1862)
First performance: Paris (Opéra), 23 February 1835.
First UK performance: London (Drury Lane), 29 July 1846.
First performance in Scotland: To be confirmed.
Scottish Opera première: N/A.
The libretto was initially offered to Rossini, but rejected in favour of Guillaume Tell. The original staging of Halévy’s extremely successful grand opera was a lavish and spectacular affair that, along with Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, which opened a year later, set the pattern for subsequent historical pageants at the Paris Opéra. The theme reflects the persecution of Jews in medieval Switzerland and the tragic implications this had for the individuals concerned, and has several impressive scenes with massed choral effects. The central role is that of Eléazar, an elderly goldsmith. This role has always been a favourite one for tenors of a certain age, having heroic stature without the usual requirement to be the romantic hero. In the early twentieth century Caruso sang it at the New York Met and made a famous recording of the great last act aria. The more conventional romantic tenor role turns out to be a distinctly ambivalent character.
Eléazar, a Jewish goldsmith (tenor)
Rachel, his daughter (soprano)
Prince Léopold, a young officer (tenor)
Princess Eudoxie, his wife (soprano)
Ruggiero, Provost of Constance (baritone)
Cardinal de Brogni (bass)
Albert, an army sergeant (bass)
The opera is set in the Swiss city of Constance in 1414. Many years earlier, before joining the church, Brogni had been a magistrate in Rome. During a siege, in which his wife had been killed, his daughter had vanished, presumed dead. As a result of grief, he joined the church, quickly rising to the position of Cardinal.
As the opera opens, there is ill-feeling stirring against the Jewish community, who work on Sundays and public holidays, including this day when the provost has announced the Emperor's decision that victory over the Hussites is to be celebrated. Eléazar is dragged from his workshop and only saved by the intervention of the Cardinal, who had known him years before, in Rome. Léopold has returned to the city in disguise, because of his love for Rachel, and is employed by Eléazar under a false name, Samuel. One of his troops, Albert, recognises him, but agrees to keep silent, and they are able to prevent Eléazar from being attacked by the mob, much to Rachel’s surprise. That evening, in Eléazar’s house, the Jewish community have gathered to celebrate Passover. Rachel is further confused when she notices Samuel avoids eating the unleavened bread. When a knocking is heard, the Jews leave and Eudoxie is admitted. She has come to buy a gold chain for her husband who is about to return from leading the victorious army. This husband is Léopold, who, on overhearing this, is consumed with guilt. After her departure, Rachel questions Samuel about the two events from earlier, and he confesses that he is a Christian, but only acted out of love for her. When Eléazar finds them together he is furious, made even more so when Samuel says that he cannot marry Rachel.
At the Emperor’s palace, a banquet is held at which Léopold is guest of honour. Brogni and Eudoxie also sit with the Emperor. Eléazar and Rachel enter to deliver the gold chain. When Rachel realises that the recipient, Eudoxie’s husband, is actually Samuel, she denounces him for having a liaison with a Jewess, herself. Prompted by Eléazar to treat sacrilegious Christians as he would Jews, Brogni anathematises all three, and they are duly condemned to death. Eudoxie pleads to Rachel that she should exonerate Léopold. She at last agrees, but refuses Brogni’s urgings to save herself by becoming a Christian. The Cardinal pleads with Eléazar to recant and save both himself and his daughter. Eléazar refuses, but now tells Brogni that years before, in Rome when his wife had been killed, the Cardinal’s daughter had been rescued by a Jew, and that, although Eléazar knew her whereabouts, he would keep the secret. Left alone, Eléazar resolves his doubts, and decides to sacrifice his daughter for his faith. With Léopold’s sentence commuted to banishment, the final scene shows preparation for the execution of Rachel and her father. She refuses his last offer to let her save herself by adopting Christianity, and she is thrown into the flaming cauldron. Before following her, Eléazar announces that Rachel was in fact Brogni’s long-lost daughter, and therefore not a Jewess at all.
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