(all photos from the collection of Charles Mintzer)


The opera may be named La Juive after Rachel whose actions drive much of the plot, but it is Rachel’s presumed father, the goldsmith Eleazar, who magnetizes audience attention from rise of curtain to finale. Rachel’s music convinces that her character is somewhat more complex than that of the average soprano lead of her time, equally gentle and fiery, and finally approaching heroism. Still, hers is a character that stays firmly within the conventions of 19th century opera and offers the operatically experienced no surprises. To some, the title implies her father will be a secondary role, but it is Eleazar who is the soul of this work and whose specter may long afterward haunt that part of the back brain where we file what we have failed to define and resolve.

 (Cornélie Falcon as Rachel,Enrico Caruso as Eléazar and Rosa Ponselle as Rachel))

As the lead tenor, he is supposed to be the protagonist… isn’t he? The depth of his love and tenderness for his daughter is palpable. We cannot help but be moved and empathically drawn to him because of this. Yet by the end of the opera he will allow her to be gruesomely executed as a pawn to extract a personal revenge. We perceive the measure of his hatred for the Cardinal Brogni to be of equal depth, but we find it at least initially repellent, as when we first see the Cardinal, he is saving Eleazar’s life and offering him the hand of friendship. Brogni will be repaid for doing so by a revelation so damning that it is conceivable the knowledge will cause him, Cardinal or not, to take his own life. Eleazar would consider this divine retribution, but we never really know why. Without a valid reason to assure us Brogni gets what he deserves, we want to jettison any empathy his music makes us feel at times for the uncompromising Jew. What disturbs us are doubts that it’s not that easy.

(composer and librettist)

Most of opera’s great revengers are all too happy to tell you about the outrage that drives them. Even before they do so, the librettist will often have a secondary character or chorus explain any tragic background from the outset. Revenge fuels so much of Eleazar’s actions, but he’s strangely reticent about his reasons for it. Nor does Juive’s librettist Eugene Scribe offer us expository narrative from any other characters. He drops us in the middle of Constanz and lets us pick up only a few clues. At the rise of the curtain, a chorus of townsfolk sings not of Eleazar’s past, nor of the Cardinal’s. They are celebrating the imminent arrival of Emperor Sigismund after a decisive victory over the Hussite heretics in 1414. Catholicism has been proven impregnable (at least at that time) in the Holy Roman Empire, and the citizens of Constanz rejoice until they hear the clank of Eleazar’s hammer, working on a day they’ve decided is holy. Spurred by the town’s arch-bigot provost Ruggiero, they roust him from his shop over the pleas of his frightened daughter and are about to turn violent when the Cardinal appears. A careful man, he asks what is the Jew’s crime. A thoughtful man, he deems it negligible when measured against Church teachings of tolerance and forgiveness. A respected man, his words carry enough moral weight to calm the bigots, temporarily at least.

During this opening scene, we learn from Eleazar’s text that he considers the Catholics’ beliefs as blasphemous as they consider his. When Ruggiero declares working on a holy day to be a crime punishable by death, Eleazar’s retort is logical, but inflammatory: “And why [should I] not? Am I not a son of Israel, and does the Christian God command my actions?” The current exercise of bigotry isn’t fueling his defiance, but an earlier one. When Ruggiero voices his horror that Eleazar “is mocking our sacred law,” Eleazar answers with a horror of his own: “And why should I respect it? I saw my sons, with their arms stretched out to me, perish by your hand at the stake.” Though Brogni intercedes for him, Eleazar rebuffs the proferred hand with “I’ve never forgotten, stern magistrate, that it was you who banished me from Rome.” He then scorns Brogni’s “hollow and belated compassion” as Brogni sings his soothing invocation of clemency, despite Rachel herself being awed by the Cardinal’s “kindness and compassion,” traits she’s never known from experience to be part of Christian make-up.
Eleazar’s character is hardly what we expect to find singing the lead tenor in a 19th century opera, nor do the sketchy details we pick up do much to explain him. So far we’ve learned that he is old enough to have a marriageable daughter, that he has lost at least two sons, that he was exiled from Rome; and that he cannot—will not--forgive Brogni for deporting him and, we suspect, for playing a role in the execution of those sons, though Scribe felt no need to explain that role or, indeed, to confirm it.

(Bulatov as Eléazar) (Rosa Raisa)

We gather slightly clearer information about Brogni’s background. He seems to recognize Eleazar, but is not sure from where. Eleazar prompts him coldly: “In Rome, but then, if I remember rightly, you were not yet a minister of God. You had a wife, a daughter—“ This touches an unhealed wound, and Brogni stops him from speaking further, “Respect the suffering of a father, a husband—I lost everything.” Eleazar seems to know the story but is unmoved by it. Much later we ourselves will find out that Brogni’s house was torched, killing his wife and infant daughter who were inside, or so Brogni believes.

Scribe’s intent is perplexing. He gives us these few background details, but without more clarification, they open up more questions than we started with. We don’t know why Eleazar’s sons were put to death—given the rest of the story and for simplicity’s sake, we assume for public heresy. We know Brogni had a certain amount of power in secular Rome—did he give the orders for their execution? Oddly, Eleazar never accuses him of that. He does seem to accuse Ruggiero of setting their pyre, unless his “your hand” is meant generically, as in “the hand of your team,” “of you Christians.” If “your” was specific to Ruggiero, logic suggests Eleazar would fixate on Ruggiero, rather than Brogni—or if Brogni gave the command Ruggiero carried out--fixate on both of them. But Eleazar’s only reaction to Ruggiero is one of impersonal defiance.
Adding to our bewilderment, a timeline is never given. Eleazar’s deportation must have come after his sons’ execution, possibly because Brogni feared the Jew’s grief would turn to retaliation. The decree of exile is given during or immediately before the Neapolitans invaded Rome with intention to waste the city and thus disable its power within the Western Schism. Was the torching of Brogni’s home a random act of Neapolitan violence, or could it have been Eleazar’s last act in Rome before leaving it? Given that Eleazar’s sense of retribution hasn’t been slacked, we can probably dismiss he was in any way responsible for the arson. Did the murders of his sons and the exile of a respected member of the Jewish community incite violence from the remaining Jews without Eleazar’s involvement but with the certainty that during the confusion in the city, any arsonists would be untraceable? This explanation may also be dismissed as Jews were “known,” even in medieval times and certainly in Scribe’s, as strikingly “meek.” Did the sons’ execution not take place in Rome at all, but in Constanz, and fairly recently if Eleazar’s “your hand” is not generic and Ruggiero did specifically carry it out, perhaps at the far-reaching behest of Brogni as Cardinal? Given Ruggiero’s demonstrated zeal to eradicate all non-Catholics, it’s not surprising that he doesn’t recognize Eleazar as a witness to one of his pyres—Ruggiero has probably lost count and his victims must have long ago become a blur of featureless faces. But in the end, we reject this possibility along with the others on the grounds that a recent outrage would still merit discussion in any other opera. Eleazar only mentions his sons that once, and Rachel is not mourning their recent deaths and seems never to have known any siblings.

For those who can’t hold their imaginations in check, the thought occurs: Did Eleazar even have biological sons (or a wife) at all? If his “your hand” is figurative, then perhaps—with his apparent degree of leadership in the Jewish community—“my sons,” as in “sons of Israel,” was also meant as a figure of speech. This would conveniently explain why his sons, and the wife he never mentions, seem such hazy figures, why Rachel appears not to know any family outside Eleazar, and finally, if Eleazar has never known any family, the fact that he has created one in Rachel would add further poignancy to their relationship. Though in his first encounter with Ruggiero he refers to himself as a “son of Israel” (“Ne suis-je pas fils d’Israel?”), French idiom would imply “mes fils” meant biological sons. Idiomatically he would be more apt to refer to fellow Jews as “mon peuple” or “mes frères.” On the basis of language, we can probably rule out the “figurative” explanation too.

(Charles Marshall as Eléazar)

For a wildly popular author, Scribe apparently expected anyone who would meditate on this character to do a lot of work, but by the time we get to the (usually) fourth act duet between Eleazar and Brogni, we may throw up our hands and decide Scribe’s carelessness renders further study worthless, that he deserves every bit of the critical disrespect he’s garnered in subsequent centuries. In this duet, Eleazar relishes again reminding Brogni of the Cardinal’s personal tragedy, but this time he turns the screw with more details (taken from two recent translations with no significant differences): “You… saw your home prey to fire/ And your wife expiring and your darling daughter/ Dying by your side as soon as she was born.” Are we to now believe Brogni was in the room where his wife had just given birth when the arsonists struck and that he escaped the flames without rescuing his newborn infant? Granting that it may have been impossible to remove his wife, can we believe he wouldn’t or couldn’t save this child he so mourns when a few minutes later with increased danger, someone else did? Yet Eleazar seems to know too many telling details to be projecting an imagined scene. Even allowing that Brogni assumes Eleazar learned the details of this story from the Jew he won’t name who rescued Rachel (otherwise Eleazar’s knowledge itself should finger him as the intruder), shouldn’t Brogni scoff “That’s impossible—no Jew could enter my house, much less have access to my wife’s bedroom. And how could, why would, I leave my child? I wasn’t there, but out in the city repelling Neapolitans.”

(Shicoff and Furlanetto) (Kipnis as Brogni)


Finally, as if the actions Eleazar attributes to Brogni weren’t already too much to swallow, Scribe’s carelessness was not only in his writing, but in his math. The invasion Eleazar refers to (and during which Rachel was born) happened in 1408. When we meet Rachel, well into her affair with “Samuel,” it is 1414, which makes her six years old. La juive never intended to be a documentary, but Scribe is offering us the same implausibilities complete with impossibly telescoping time that housewives accept as the price of seeing their dreams played out in televised soap operas. (When the phrase was coined to name that genre, was the phrase-maker thinking of Scribe?)

Nineteenth century authors were often sloppy, but usually didn’t leave quite that such counter-logic or quite so many holes for their target audiences to puzzle over or be unable to explain away with the Fatal Coincidence device. He must have considered his libretto good enough as is, for he initially offered it to Rossini. This may have been an empty gesture--Rossini had declared his retirement from opera years before. Or Scribe may have felt his text enough to entice Rossini back to the theater. In any case, Rossini declined, and if the libretto had been a rough draft Scribe intended to polish, he must have had time before he and the Paris Opera decided to offer it to Halevy. Perhaps Scribe then felt he needn’t exert himself as Halevy hadn’t yet proved himself to be in any league near the iconic Rossini, thus the opera might prove of no consequence. Perhaps he felt his audience wouldn’t track the story anyway if the ballet corps were fetching enough. Perhaps this very prolific librettist simply lost interest because he was already at work on his next project. (During the first rehearsals and first three performances he did go back to it, as many French “editions,” most probably never translated into another language, still exist. One would like to think the rewrites buffed out the plot’s absurdities, but his rewrites probably were strictly to add textual padding for music Halevy wrote for singers who wished their parts expanded.)


We are left to supply the mortar for Scribe’s bricks ourselves. To soothe the obsessive, it’s probably easiest to settle on Roman magistrate Brogni ordering Eleazar’s sons executed for rebelliously flaunting their “heretical” beliefs, that Brogni’s deputy Ruggiero (unrebelliously) executed his superior’s order, and that Eleazar was powerless to save his sons. Perhaps fearing personal retaliation or general insurrection, Brogni then ordered Eleazar into exile. Between this order and the time Eleazar left Rome and by whatever forces, Brogni’s house was destroyed by fire, his wife and infant daughter inside, or so Brogni thinks. Whether by accident or design, Eleazar was there and saved the child, which he kept and raised as his own, never telling her that he was anything but her father. Wherever else his exile may have taken him, Eleazar has settled with the girl in Constanz. The grief-stricken Brogni left secular life for haven within the Church. Having proven his ability to climb outside the Church, he may have come to exercise his talents within it. In any event, he rose to Cardinal and is currently visiting Constanz to preside over the important council of 1414. If it’s improbable that Eleazar would end up in the same town as his arch-enemy and the arch-enemy’s known enforcer, we can accept this as Fateful Coincidence, that convention so cherished by 19th century authors. We go to the trouble to do this, despite a libretto that won’t bear close scrutiny, because we want this opera for its elements that do speak to us through its absurdities. In some ways, this “resolutely unsentimental story,” as Alex Cooper of The New Yorker called it, hardly seems a 19th century product at all.
It would be easy to dismiss this as one of Scribe’s hackier jobs in a career full of hackery. Opera-lovers were exposed to and learned to expect more coherent storylines that the 19th century increasingly offered them. But in 1835 when La juive premiered, a large portion of the rising French middle-classes attending opera, was more interested in being flattered (when interested in anything outside spectacle and the ballerinas) than in a well-crafted story. Scribe was happy to oblige if for no other reason than it made him rich. There were still deep wounds left in the national psyche from the blood-drenched revolution less than 40 years before, but that the middle classes existed to attend pleasures such as opera at all was one balm-like proof that they possessed an enlightenment their ancestors had lacked, and they wanted the distance they increasingly felt from the past validated—often—on the popular stage. They weren’t particular as to how.

But Juive continues to call us to us due to a convergence of accidents that worked to raise one element of Scribe’s libretto—his character Eleazar—out of the realm of hackery, leaving us astonished at the power and timelessness of his creation, as well as to its relevance to our time. One accident is that Halevy’s music is inspired enough to bind what could have been a plot-convenient grab-bag of contradictions into what seems a living, breathing character, one who can’t help but fascinate us. Another accident is that subsequent history has made this character’s situation timely in ways we hope the creators of this opera could not foresee. A third accident is that modern tastes have developed in such a way that the clearly black or white characters of 19th century literature are given less credence than the flawed characters we perceive as closer to the human norm we now see in ourselves. It has been perhaps since the watershed of Western attitudes, the First World War, that audiences and readers started to look less for ideals and more for something we call realistic, to sympathize and even identify with ambivalence and ambiguities.
Characters such as Eleazar weren’t unheard of in the 19th century, but they weren’t given much popular understanding. Melville’s characters now fit our criteria as well, but they confused or discomfited those who preferred the noble characters of, say, Walter Scott, and so Melville’s work was hardly embraced or critically acclaimed during his lifetime. Halevy’s almost exact contemporary Marschner was also drawn to marginalized characters with deeply divided psyches, but perhaps because his subjects belonged to the supernatural realms, they inspired more curiosity than the human identification Marschner seemed to be asking for. La juive may be revived only somewhat more often than Marschner’s work, but the reasons are not because its plot or characters are outside our realm. Although Eleazar is a fictional character, he is decisively of the real world, and we realize the number of centuries don’t matter, that the events of 1414 are recent history.

(character preparation, Charles Marshal as Eléazar)

Familiar he may be, but it’s a familiarity that disturbs. Compare him to other operatic characters who sacrifice their children. Medea inspires the “pity and horror” as the central character of any Attic tragedy is intended to do, but that’s all she’s meant to inspire. Most of us can’t identify with a demi-goddess, much less with her deliberate infanticide. Rigoletto may inspire some pity and some horror, but his carelessness that caused him to lose Gilda was inadvertent. Few of us want to identify with such a butt of Fate, and even while in some inner recess, we feel for his loss, his outcome also feels more or less just—most of us feel he brought this tragedy elegantly upon himself.
Eleazar shares many traits with Rigoletto. Both have lived their entire lives with daily humiliation, Rigoletto for his disfigurement, Eleazar for being born into beliefs that contradict the beliefs of those who hold the power. Both adore their daughters, the only family member left to them and the more treasured for this fact. Both men are infested with secrets regarding their daughters, Rigoletto hides Gilda’s existence, while Eleazar hides Rachel’s true identity. Both feel themselves powerless in a hostile world that threatens their daughters whom they must vigilantly protect from it. Both are obsessive, enraged and longing to destroy a single power figure they perceive as having outraged them. Society offers neither of them legal recourse and in fact would further punish their “temerity” if either of them sought redress.
The similarities more or less end there. Rigoletto knows the stings he has felt are purely personal; Eleazar feels his are part and parcel of larger outrages against the one true G-d. Rigoletto would seek no heavenly solace or protection—his Italian mindset probably believes God despises him as much as does mankind and has proven His rejection by cursing him with a hunched back. Eleazar considers himself one of G-d’s favorites—not for personal merits, but because as a Jew, he has inherited knowledge of the truth about the Supreme Being, to whom Eleazar has given reverence to all his days, as those who would live righteously, by his criteria, do.
We tend to conceive our Higher Power according to our experience of how the world treats us. In Eleazar’s case, with its crushing personal losses, the daily indignities he cannot protest, the threat of a spontaneous violence he might not survive, Eleazar is hardly likely to conceive of a God of love. His G-d must necessarily be as harsh as the existence forced on Eleazar, with power far greater than--but as futile to question--as the dominance Christians have exerted over Eleazar all his life. Simply to maintain desire to go on, Eleazar must believe that man’s power, threatening though it is, is as nothing compared to the power of the Almighty who, whether He chooses to alleviate Eleazar’s suffering or not, is on Eleazar’s side.

(Martinelli and Marshall as Eléazar)

It is hard to imagine Eleazar actually loving such a deity, but certainly easy to imagine how he fears His omnipotence. Love is the feeling he has for Rachel, but while deep, his love for her is merely personal; he conceives of obedience to the Supreme as universal enjoinment for all mankind, unquestionably superceding all other responsibilities or feelings. G-d is truly The Almighty, and Eleazar has the spiritual maturity to accept his G-d “as He is,” even while He tests His servant to the very limit. Despite having wholeheartedly lived by this creed, despite the tortuous conundrum that will engulf him, Eleazar never argues with his G-d as an equal: No "my God, why has Thou forsaken me?" No "why have you rewarded me thus?" There is no room for doubt about the Grand Seigneur's will. Rebellion would be unthinkable. Eleazar's first task, as he sees it and his options, is to divine the one path that best serves Him. Within his system of beliefs, and allowing for humanly fallacious conclusions we can never be sure we ourselves don’t adopt, we have to admire him for acting with absolute integrity. He never adjusts his beliefs out of convenience, though he may certainly be accused of conveniently adjusting conclusions about his beliefs. At some point, he has had to adjust what is a personal desire for revenge to Brogni’s having offended one of G-d’ favorites to Brogni’s offense against G-d Himself which G-d would punish. The faithful Eleazar would only be acting as His agent to carry out that punishment. We find this chain of thought fallacious, but it was necessary for Eleazar to forge if he would preserve a sense of his own goodness.
If we reject Eleazar’s rationalizations, we do well to remember Eleazar hasn’t had centuries of humanist thought influencing him as we have had. It’s not an excuse, but simply a fact that within the limitations of his time, he has come to believe his actions are scrupulously at one with the will of the Grand Seigneur. That “little voice” he confesses hearing during his great aria is his love for Rachel and desire to preserve her life speaking. This is the only time he considers alternative action, and that he does so is a measure of his love for his adopted child and of the agony of the trap he’s in. But as if to correct him immediately, “G-d” demonstrates exactly how savage, how blasphemous these Christians are. Eleazar hears them clamoring for Jews’ blood, specifically his and Rachel’s, and this decides him. “He” is asking them both to become martyrs for Him. Eleazar will obey, without doubts and without tears. Even his capacity for stoicism is in service to something higher.

Though the modernity of the character of Brogni isn’t quite so striking, Scribe’s presentation of him is also ahead of his time. That he neither confirms or denies whatever sin Eleazar blames Brogni for may have been only carelessness, but it has become a literary technique more likely to be accepted by us in the 20th or 21st centuries than by its audience in the 19th. Scribe seems to anticipate a modern view of Brogni’s guilt or innocence not mattering, that we know Eleazar simply obsessively blames him is enough. Did Scribe intend a lesson in the tragedy of intolerance breeding circular violence, advanced for its time? I don’t think we can ever be certain. Perhaps to Scribe it was simply a “rattling good story,” not a lesson in the value of forgiveness. Brogni probably is guilty, but in counterpoint to Eleazar, his tragedy is that his losses seem to have softened him from the feared magistrate into someone discovering within himself more humane instincts. Perhaps he’s started listening to his own “little voice” telling him that all life is sacred, an idea not supported or encouraged by the Church of his time, but one emerging from Brogni’s own instinctive spirituality. As he listens to these inner promptings, he too strives for decency and to follow what seem to be Christ’s teachings, but the voice hasn’t been speaking long enough for these ideas to take solid root and not be overcome by conditioning. The idea of miscegenation, no personal offense against him but a decided offense against laws set by the Church, is enough to flip him back violently to received opinion. He, as much as Eleazar, is responsible for his own ultimate tragedy. Eleazar will lose his life. Brogni, who regains his daughter only to lose her again, will be crippled by guilt for his own role in what he will now see as her murder, the faith he lived by no longer sustain him.
That we can infer Eleazar’s belief system and thus feel we know an intimate part of him, that we can admire his strength to live by those beliefs even if we don’t share his faith or we flatly reject his conclusions, that we can disapprove his failure to tell Rachel the truth at the last moment because he can’t bear the thought that by saving herself, she would be rejecting him and yet we find such cowardice not only understandable, but even profoundly moving, is evidence that at least once in his life Scribe, accidentally or not, transcended the quality of his usual work. Another piece of evidence is how easily Eleazar may be transplanted into a modern setting, even gaining potency from it.

(Francisco Casanova and Louis Morrisson)

As played traditionally, the leonine patriarch in medieval dress impresses us foremost with the heroic strength that enables him to die for his beliefs. In the most recent revival, originally from Vienna’s Staatsoper and now at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, his current interpreter is a slightly built man who would be hard-pressed to impress an audience as anything, had he tried to compete visually with his predecessors. Instead, Neil Shicoff chose to use his size to impress upon us another view of Eleazar—physically vulnerable because of his frailness, utterly ordinary in a plain sack suit. This Eleazar can’t help but remind us of details in Victor Klemperer’s diary—and thus of any number of Jews—or of anyone victimized for being “inferior.” The diary is a record of the inexorably growing curtailments written into bizarre law by madmen, of dealing with one’s own powerlessness to combat this and how one man nevertheless coped, determined to survive by keeping a low profile, but without denying his identity or his pride in it. Writing for the audience of his time, Scribe could hardly have anticipated, not only the history to come, but how much more readily our own audience responds to the technique of his character’s presentation. The taciturn Eleazar doesn’t reveal much of himself to us—his revelation is reserved for Brogni. To us, more than anything else, he leaves challenge.

The empathic, whether Jewish or not, will have to confront that Eleazar’s responses show seamless integrity according to his beliefs and what life has taught him. The empathic will ask themselves how they might have responded differently and may have to face not coming up with an alternative answer. Do we recoil from Eleazar’s cold cruelty once the balance of power (for the first time in his life) has turned and he can torment another father by withholding his great secret? Does his icy exultancy when he finally does reveal it lose us? Even laying aside an outrage toward our own families, how differently would we behave after a lifetime of enforced sub-human status? We may squirm at the Jewish stereotype relishing gold (and wonder what Halevy thought when having to set such text to music), but if we were presented the opportunity to cheat those who denied our value and circumscribed our right to expression, would we not take glee in any retribution however miniscule? I would imagine Juive’s original audience felt no such challenge from Eleazar—to them, his behavior was the effect caused by their less civilized ancestors. But we ourselves can’t dismiss the causes that created him as belonging to another time and place. Eleazars have existed for centuries, and in the 20th we were close enough to count them. The factors that drove the Third Reich to genocide, supported actively or allowed passively by its constituents, have been variously explored, but ultimately defy sane explanation. The disease may be less visible than in the 20th century, but it is still with us, and in Eleazar, we are compelled to confront both that fact and its effects.

(Raisa and Minghetti) (Raisa and Edith Mason)


The writer would like to thank Mr. Rudi Van den Bulck for his support and encouragement and Mr. Tom Kaufman for his guidance and for generously sharing his considerable knowledge.