Notes and Editorial Reviews
Production: Günter Krämer
PCM STEREO · Dolby Digital 5.0 & DTS 5.0
R E V I E W S
The undeniable merit of this recording is that it preserves what a vividly marvelous piece of musical melodrama this opera is, abounding with lyrical moments and cracklingly powerful scenes, and marked throughout by engaged and engaging acting by the principals. It also allows one to contemplate how rich in influences this opera was upon the young Verdi and Wagner, in equal measure. There are pre-echoes here of the choral writing in Flying Dutchman, Wotan’s Spear, even the “Magic Fire Music,” as well as Verdi’s dispensation of
groundswell choral scenes and dramatic use of parlando.
The staging has struck many observers as spartan, the simplicity of its primary colors—it is done up entirely in black, white, and red—refuses to distract from the interaction of the principals. And, realistically, opera production has grown so expensive that unit stage concepts are preferable, if they can be made to support the action. This one is striking, with an elevated slanting platform separating the darkened world of the Jewish characters, all of whom wear black, from the glittering, chandelier-lit world of the gentiles, all of whom are clad in white. Scenery changes are managed by shifting focus from one world to the other, and the church and external city street scenes are suggested by dropping a curtain of plexiglass doors in front of the set.
The film does exploit some camera angles unavailable to the audience, including back shots from the wings, even scenes from behind the curtains, and of course has the advantage of varying close-ups and full-stage shots.
Krassimira Stoyanova is a marvel, singing with warmth, acting with nuance, and even erasing the impressions made by the astounding Isokoski. Her voice has a dusky smoothness, evenly produced from vibrant chest voice to the electric top, able to rise over the horror stricken crowd during the malediction and flexible enough to execute Halevy’s demanding passagework. Simina Ivan, the Eudoxie, suffers somewhat by comparison, as she is less certain in pitch and more shrill in her upper register, but she blends thrillingly with Stoyanova in their act IV confrontation.
Throughout, the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic is richly burnished and vital. Croatian conductor Vjekoslav Šutej, a previous music director at La Fenice and of the Houston Grand Opera, responds flexibly and with rhythmic snap, maximizing the textural and coloristic variety of Halévy’s intricate score.
And, of course, there is Neil Shicoff’s Eléazar. His searing portrayal will not please all aficionados of bel canto singing, raw and hard edged, sacrificing beauty of line and even hissing and whispering for melodramatic effect. Yet, the realistic dramatic energy and commitment he brings to this role—throughout, and not just in his big act V aria—is undeniable, and the necessary vocal heft and clarity is still there despite the raw patches. Clearly this opera would not have been revived, or as successfully, without his central involvement. The Sidney Lumet film of Rachel uses MTV-style video manners (thankfully without the nervous cross-cutting and short attention span) to transpose Eléazar to a synagogue, where the conflict between his faith, represented by the Torah and prayer shawl, which he kisses, and his fatherly love—expressed to the mute figure of Stoyanova as Rachel—is spelled out even more explicitly than in the opera. As he ends the aria, he rips the Torah in two as Rachel’s image fades, then collapses. Shicoff’s lip-synching is not always adept, greatly blunting the dramatic impact.
More substantial, though also more self-indulgent, is Paula Fisher’s documentary about Shicoff, indisputably the focal personage of this entire DVD package. But this film also provides valuable background about the opera and its revival at Vienna State Opera and later the Met, about Lumet’s video of the aria, and Günther Krämer’s dramatic conception. It begins with a glowing testimonial from Seiji Ozawa, the musical director of the Vienna State Opera, as he bestows lifetime membership honorarium on the singer and includes gushing praise from the intendant, Ioan Holender. The film is notable also for an argument over the meaning of the opera, as Shicoff shouts down the idea that it should once again be made into an allegory of Nazi persecution, urging instead for a broader significance. Along the way, there are some fascinating vignettes, such as an amusing discussion with the Viennese doctor who checks Shicoff’s vocal chords and several snapshots of how he prepares with his pianist during performance. The whole package is eagerly recommended and is an early Want List candidate.
Christopher Williams, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
La juive by Jacques Halévy
Simina Ivan (Soprano),
Krassimira Stoyanova (Soprano),
Neil Shicoff (Tenor),
Walter Fink (Bass)
Vienna State Opera Chorus,
Vienna State Opera Orchestra
Written: 1835; Paris, France
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