Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > La Juive (Halévy)
An Opera by Jacques François Halévy
The plot of "La Juive" (The Jewess) has been well described as gory. The time is about 1414, when the Austrians dominated Switzerland, and the Jews were persecuted by all classes. The action is in the city of Constance. Prince Leopold, disguised, and pretending to be of the Israelitish faith, seeks to win the affection of Rachel, daughter of Eleazar, a wealthy Jew. During a general holiday which celebrates the arrival of the Emperor, Eleazar and his daughter incur the fury of the mob because, in defiance of edict, Eleazar has kept his shop open. The pair are saved death by the cardinal, who entertains a secret sympathy for Eleazar. The second Act takes place at the house of Eleazar, who has arranged a religious feast at which the pretended Israelite is present. The feast is interrupted by the arrival of Eudoxia, a niece of the Emperor, who buys an expensive chain from Eleazar, and orders it to be engraved with the name of herself and her husband, Prince Leopold.
Leopold overhears the conversation, and troubled by remorse, confesses to Rachel that he is a Christian. Love prevails over faith, and the Jewess consents to elope with her deceiver, when Eleazar unexpectedly appears and frustrates the design. The Jew declares that he will be revenged on Leopold, but, at his daughters earnest entreaty, agrees to overlook the past. Leopold asserting this to be impossible, Eleazar curses him, while Rachel is overwhelmed with despair.
The third Act opens with an imperial banquet at which Eleazar attends with the chain ordered by Eudoxia. Eudoxia hangs it round the neck of her husband Leopold, who is recognized by Eleazar and Rachel as the perfidious infidel. Rachel openly charges him with having seduced her a crime then punishable by death. Leopold admits the truth. The cardinal then pronounces anathema on the trio, and they are led to prison to await his sentence. In the fourth Act Eudoxia obtains an interview with Rachel and pleads with her to retract her accusation. The Jewess thereupon declares the innocence of Leopold and resolves to die alone. The cardinal, whose sympathy for Eleazar hangs on the fate of a daughter lost to him in early childhood, and of whose fortunes he has reason to suppose the Jew is cognizant, promises a full pardon on condition that Eleazar embraces the Christian faith. Eleazar refuses. So, while Leopold is freed, Eleazar and Rachel are condemned to death. At the fatal moment when Rachel is plunged into a cauldron of boiling oil, Eleazar points her out to the Cardinal as his own long-host daughter, saved during infancy from a burning building; and the curtains falls on Eleazar following Rachel to the terrible death.
Halévy never wrote anything finer than "La Juive." The music shows traces of the influence of Meyerbeer, who in turn (in "The Huguenots," produced the following year) was influenced by "La Juive." But there is an individuality in it, too, especially in its sharp contrasts and passionate outbursts; and its serious, sober dignity compels the admiration of the listener. This latter quality is all the more astonishing that within the same year Halevy produced, in "LEclair," a musical comedy in a style completely different. Mr. Streatfeild finds most of "La Juive" "exceedingly long-winded and dull," but the general opinion is more favourable, otherwise the opera would long since have been buried in oblivion.