The Opening of the Italian Season. Halévy’s "La Juive"

The Opening of the Italian Season. Halévy's "La Juive" (Открытие итальянского сезона. «Жидовка» Галеви) [1] (TH 291 ; ČW 556) was Tchaikovsky's twenty-sixth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 20 September 1874 [O.S.].

It contains an interesting discussion of Halévy's masterpiece La Juive in the context of the French tradition of Grand Opera, with regard to which Tchaikovsky has both positive and negative things to say; critical remarks in passing about two of Verdi's most popular operas and even about Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor; further laments about how Moscow was being deprived of the chance to hear the best Russian operas; and a detailed analysis of the singers' performance in this staging of La Juive.

History

Completed by 20 September/2 October 1874 (date of publication). Reviewing the Italian Opera Company's production of Halévy's La Juive at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 13/25 September 1874 [O.S.], conducted by Enrico Bevignani and featuring Gabrielle Krauss as Rachel, and Emilio Naudin as Eléazar.

English translation

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Halévy's La Juive [2] represents perhaps the most distinctive, if not the finest, manifestation of the traditions and spirit of the French operatic school. Whilst it is impossible not to acknowledge the great force and prominent musical individuality of Meyerbeer [3], that mightiest pillar of the French school, it must, on the other hand, be said that the demands of the Parisian public as far as opera is concerned have found a more reliable and faithful exegete in Halévy. For in Meyerbeer's oeuvre, in spite of all the elasticity and versatility of his genius, which was always able to adapt itself both to the serious aesthetic principles of the nation in whose midst he lived and to the latter's transient, fleeting whims, one can sense and recognize the former pupil of the pedantic German Abbé Vogler [4].

Halévy, who received his musical education in Paris, is free of all extraneous influences. In his operas he was above all a Frenchman who catered to the taste of his fellow-countrymen not by dint, say, of a conscious attitude on his part towards the established customs of his country, but, rather, simply because, as a Parisian, he was thoroughly steeped in the spirit of the French operatic school, with all its merits and faults, with its sensible traditions and conventional clichés. Perhaps it is precisely because of this ingenuous spontaneity of Halévy's creative process that his music, and especially his best opera La Juive, has become the property of all the opera-houses in Europe, whereby the popularity of La Juive in France is comparable only to that of Der Freischützin Germany [5].

It is well-known that what the French public demands of an opera above all is a brilliant spectacle, with sumptuous décors, magnificent scenery, ballet, and triumphant or funeral processions. It also expects strong dramatic situations, no matter how false and insufficiently motivated these may be. Finally, French audiences also want catchy melodies with poignant rhythms, a simple and transparent harmonic texture, and a decoratively coarse but dazzling instrumentation. All these requirements are more than amply satisfied by Halévy. From a purely musical point of view, La Juive can under no circumstances be counted amongst the greatest musico-dramatic works, but it does possess certain merits which will secure for it a prolonged success, in spite of its antiquated forms and the absence in it of any flashes of genuine inspiration.

The manner of composition is very beautiful and, compared to Italian operas, shows that a lot of care has been put into it. The melodies are not resplendent with originality, but they are far removed from the trivial banality of Italian cantilena; the instrumentation is masterly, albeit not as rich as Meyerbeer's. At any rate, this opera affords a very agreeable refreshment to the ear which is tired of constantly having to hear Lucia, Traviata, and Il Trovatore [6]. For if we really are condemned to see our Russian Opera pine away miserably, if we are deprived of the opportunity to experience the operas of Glinka, Dargomyzhsky, and Serov even if only in productions which are just about bearable, then let us at least draw some consolation from the fact that the management of our Italian Opera does not stick exclusively to Italian wares, which everyone is sick and tired of, but also incorporates into its repertoire the most significant works of other national schools of opera.

In this performance of La Juive we saw an old acquaintance of the Muscovite public, Monsieur Naudin [7], in the role of Eléazar, as well as several new soloists, amongst whom the soprano Madame Krauss [8] awakened particular interest, as she is one of the most renowned exponents of the art of singing today. Monsieur Naudin's interpretation of the role of Eléazar was a real triumph for this venerable artist. In the struggle against the destructive force of time Monsieur Naudin emerges victorious with flying colours. His voice not only does not lose any of its strength, beauty, and richness of tone, but seems almost to become younger and fresher with every year that passes.

The artistry with which this magnificent singer manages to get round the difficulties which derive from the insufficiency of his innate vocal resources is truly astonishing. Monsieur Naudin lacks entirely what for a tenor is the easiest and most convenient means of eliciting the audience's enthusiasm – namely, high chest notes. But then he is endowed with a splendid method of singing, with the ability to nuance phrases ever so finely and to economise his energy sensibly; moreover, his singing exudes genuine warmth and is passionately expressive. And thanks to all this it is always a great pleasure to listen to Naudin.

He is not only an inspired, but also an intelligent and prudent singer, whose magnificent artistry ought to serve as a lesson to such whippersnappers as Signor Masini [9], who, in straining himself to bawl out a high chest note, will expend all his energy reserves, so you can't expect anything more of him afterwards – neither feeling, nor expressiveness, nor even an imposing stage presence. Monsieur Naudin's performance of the famous aria in Act IV [10], for which Mr Setov [11] too was justly acclaimed in his time, provoked a veritable storm of enthusiasm.

In the role of Rebecca [12], Madame Krauss was able to present herself to best advantage. She is a first-rate artiste: her voice does show some signs of fatigue, but it is still beautiful and strong. Her singing and acting are both fascinatingly dramatic, though it does seem to me that, like all contemporary prima donnas (with the exception of Madame Patti), Madame Krauss resorts far too often to vocal tours de force. Be that as may be, she is nonetheless a valuable acquisition for our Italian Opera, since after Charlotta Marchisio [13] there has been no other singer in Moscow who could tackle, with unmitigated success, the highly dramatic soprano roles in the Italian repertoire.

The bass, Monsieur Jamet, possesses a voice of rare beauty, which has also been trained and developed quite well. His acting is simple and elegant, and he conducts himself with great dignity. We may also congratulate the Theatres' Directorate upon having engaged this singer: his success was deserved and solid. This was less so the case with Signor Manni, a second-rate singer, although he did also show himself to some advantage. Unfortunately, this is something we cannot say at all about the tenor Emmini, who had been entrusted with the very important role of Prince Léopold. I do feel sorry for this young man, but I must warn him that if he does not immediately change over to supernumerary roles, there will be trouble and he won't be able to avoid a scandal.

Signor Emmini's little voice is worthy of a miniature toy, and it is therefore clearly not at all suited to the huge dimensions of our Bolshoi Theatre. As for his acting, in no way can it be said to be acting in the sense of interpreting a role – if anything, it was more like the tomfoolery of a child. What a comic figure poor little Emmini cut next to the tall and robustly built figure of Madame Krauss, what with his affected, clumsy gestures and this constant clenching of his little fists, by which he presumably meant to convey the horror and despair of Prince Léopold! To be fair, though, it must be said that Signor Emmini is not at all devoid of ability as a singer, and I am sure that on a small provincial stage he would be able to make himself very useful. Here, however, one can barely hear his voice and make out his figure on the stage.

I still hesitate to make a definitive judgement about the singer Madame Tommasi, who also made her début that evening in the role of Princess Eudoxia. The only thing that is incontestable is that she is young and has a nice voice. If I am not mistaken, Madame Tommasi was engaged here as a coloratura soprano. Well, it was precisely in this respect that her merits have not yet manifested themselves sufficiently.

Signor Bevignani is a conductor who knows his profession inside out, and, moreover, he is not devoid of temperament and musical understanding. His orchestra, not being altogether exhausted as yet, played rather well. Indeed, the overall production may not have been faultless, but it did go quite smoothly. The male chorus, reinforced by a good dozen capable Italian chorus-singers, even gave a performance that was much better than normal. But why, I wonder, was the female chorus not reinforced also, considering that it is so badly understaffed? This is terribly inconsequential and most unwise, too. I know that wooden houses are sometimes erected on stone foundations. But why this architectural method is applied to an opera production, I simply can't understand.

P. Tchaikovsky.


Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'The Opening of the Italian Season—"La Juive" by Halévy' in ČW.
  2. Jacques Fromental Halévy (1799–1862), famous French operatic composer. His masterpiece La Juive (1835) is one of the key works of French Grand Opera and was greatly admired by Berlioz and Wagner. Halévy taught at the Conservatoire from 1827, his pupils including Gounod and Bizet, who married his daughter Geneviève — translator's note (based on The Oxford Dictionary of Opera).
  3. See TH 265 for further detailed observations on Meyerbeer.
  4. Georg Joseph Vogler (1749–1814), German music theorist, composer, and conductor, who was also ordained as a priest in Rome. His pupils included Weber and Meyerbeernote by Ernst Kuhn.
  5. See TH 282 and TH 271 for Tchaikovsky's enthusiastic attitude to Weber's opera.
  6. Although Tchaikovsky in his articles frequently cites these two operas of Verdi (especiallyIl Trovatore) and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoorin one breath as examples of the insipid fare regularly dished up to the undemanding Muscovite public by the Italian impresario Merelli, it is worth noting that in the remarkable Autobiography (TH 317) which Tchaikovsky sent to a German music critic in 1889, and which has only recently come to light thanks to The Tchaikovsky Handbook, he confesses that in his youth he was "an enthusiastic admirer of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti" and that he still liked Italian bel canto very much (especially in Bellini's operas). As for La Traviata, Tchaikovsky was also capable of being deeply moved by the "genuine sincerity of feeling" in Verdi's music when the role of Violetta was sung by such a splendid artiste as Adelina Patti (see TH 266) — translator's note.
  7. Emilio Naudin (1823–1890), Italian tenor of French origins whom Tchaikovsky admired greatly — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. Gabrielle Krauss (1842–1906), famous Austrian soprano, début at the Vienna Hofoper at the age of 17, prima donna at the Paris Opéra from 1875 to 1887; a remarkable actress as well as a fine singer, she was known in France, after the great tragic actress, as 'la Rachel chantante' — note by Ernst Kuhn (supplemented by The Oxford Dictionary of Opera).
  9. Angelo Masini (1844–1926), Italian tenor, famous for his virtuoso singing, but notorious for his poor acting. See Nikolay Kashkin, Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), p. 201 — translator's note.
  10. "Rachel, quand du Seigneur", Eléazar's aria in Act IV of La Juive, in which he expresses his anguish over having to decide whether to let Rachel be burned at the stake or to save her life by revealing that she is in fact Cardinal Brogni's daughter — translator's note (based on The Oxford Dictionary of Opera).
  11. Iosif Setov (originally Sethofer, 1826–1894), Russian tenor who also worked as a stage director and impresario — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  12. The heroine of La Juive is in fact called Rachel! That «Ребекка» is given in the Russian text (in the 1953 Soviet edition of these articles) may either be a reminiscence by Tchaikovsky of Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, or, more likely, another instance of intervention by the Soviet censorship, which also saw fit to change the title of the opera from La Juive (Жидовка) to The Cardinal's Daughter (Дочь кардинала) throughout this article — translator's note.
  13. Charlotta Marchisio (1835–1872), famous Italian soprano, débuted in Madrid in 1856. She subsequently sang with her no less famous sister Barbara Marchisio (contralto) in Italy and the leading opera-houses of London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, etc. From 1869 to 1871 she appeared in Moscow and Saint Petersburg note by Ernst Kuhn.