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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Shofar - Book Reviews

Opera, Liberalism, and Antisemitism in Nineteenth-Century France: The Politics of Halévy's La Juive, by Diana R. Hallman. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press: 2002. 390 pp. $70.00.

When the opera La Juive (The Jewess) was premiered in Paris in 1835, it was immediately embraced by the public and became one of the most popular French operas of the nineteenth century. Its music was beautiful, and its story highly dramatic. Yet, how could an anti-Catholic drama of great intensity that also was keenly sympathetic to Jews achieve such acceptance in a predominantly Catholic, largely antisemitic society?

Diana Hallman has written an excellent answer to that question. Her study is well-researched, is thorough in its scope, and reads like a novel.

The story of the opera takes place in Constance, Switzerland, in 1414 and reflects indirectly actual historical events. The protagonists of the opera are its hero, Eléazar (a wealthy Jew), Rachel (his adopted daughter), Cardinal Brogni (responsible in the past for the cruel deaths of Eléazar's family through a Christian-inspired slaughter), and Léopold (prince of the Empire, faithless husband, and, in disguise as the Jew Samuel, the wooer of Rachel). Although Brogni attempts in his own narrow way to be nice to Eléazar (whom he does not recognize as his former victim), the latter defiantly continues to hate Brogni and his Church and seeks revenge. He gets it through Rachel, born a Christian as Brogni's child, whom Eléazar rescues as an infant and raises as a Jewess. When it is discovered that Léopold (Samuel) is not Jewish and is married, Brogni seeks to punish all in one way or another. Rachel sacrifices herself to save Léopold. Only as she dies does Eléazar reveal to Brogni her true identity.

The opera was written by Eugène Scribe, the most famous librettist in Europe at the time and a liberal Christian, and Fromental Halévy, an up-and-coming young opera composer and a Jew. Hallman gives us a clear picture of both, their interactions, and what they were attempting to accomplish. The composer came from a distinguished Jewish family; his father, Elie, came to Paris from the Jewish center in Metz and quickly distinguished himself for his efforts to help Jews enter post-Revolutionary French society. Always sympathetic to his father's views and his own upbringing, Halévy, and to a lesser extent also his younger brother Leon, a prolific writer and Saint-Simonian, softened some of Scribe's harshest scenes and pointed out to Scribe where he was "insensitive." Hallman gives us some of the variant versions of scenarios, scenes and texts that were eliminated from the final version of the opera, many because Scribe lacked a Jewish perspective. She also shows us how Halévy interpreted specific texts and thereby characters through his musical setting. It was to be the composer's greatest work.

Within the context of the social and political history of France in the early 1830s, the opera takes on meaning beyond the story line. Jews in Paris were in a unique position in Europe in the early 1830s. Napoleon had created self-governing Jewish consistories twenty years earlier, and in 1831 a liberal regime enacted a law recognizing Judaism as a state religion (entitling rabbis to government salaries). Jews were accepted by Christians, but just how far and in what ways Hallman details. She traces the history of French antisemitism from the eighteenth century and its vestiges in the Paris of Halévy and Scribe, and she shows how the liberalism stemming from Voltaire and the Revolution is aimed not only at the abuses of the Church but also at the medievalism of Rabbinic Judaism. The opera plays to the frictions current in France at that time not only between Jews and non-Jews but also between Reform Jews and Traditional Jews, among political conservatives, reactionaries, and liberals. The opera reflects all these undercurrents, which helps explain why the opera was so popular. The audience understood these issues that the opera attacked through musical and operatic metaphor.

Hallman discusses this background as history, but she also compares the story and the principal characters to literary precedents and contemporary stereotypes of Jews. She traces the slowly developing sympathy of non-Jewish European writers to Jews in their fiction: from Shakespeare's Shylock (Merchant of Venice) and Marlowe's Barabas and Abigail (The Jew of Malta) to Lessing's Nathan (Nathan der Weise) and Scott's Rebecca (Ivanhoe). Scribe and Halévy learn from these portrayals and draw from them but also adapt them to a much more sympathetic Eléazar and Rachel.

Although the opera La Juive was banned in some countries and mutilated in others, its Parisian version held the stage for almost a century not only in France but also in America (especially in New Orleans, also a French Catholic city with opera as the center of its life). Today the opera's message of tolerance and Halévy/Scribe's evidence of what happens when society is not tolerant are still relevant. Hallman's authoritative exposition of the meaning of La Juive comes at a time when many are rediscovering the opera and adapting it to our current struggle with the concept of diversity.

John H. Baron
Music Department
Tulane University