The arts are often touted as a means of moral progress, where prejudices and evil deeds are critically explored through the lens of contemporary cultural sensitivities and the insights of history.
A current example is the musical Hamilton where the founding fathers of America are portrayed by Black and Hispanic actors, and a key figure, Eliza, ends the Tony Award winner reflection on the bloody birth of a nation by calling for the end of slavery and the care of war veterans and orphans. It is the moment hope rises and the audience is assured once again that the theatre can show the way to our better selves.
That is just what I hoped for from Opera Australia’s production of La Juive, staged at the Sydney Opera House from March 9-26, but was greatly disappointed. In a world of rising antisemitism, La Juive’s focus on the fraught relations between Christians and Jews delivers an unrelenting portrayal of Jews as unforgiving, vengeful and violent in service of an equally merciless God. It was textbook antisemitism where the loving Christian God is set against the Old Testament God of judgement and retribution.
No wonder the opera was a hit with French audiences from the mid-19th century on, drawing admiration from the notorious antisemite, Richard Wagner.
The story, which the Jewish composer Fromental Halevy (1799-1862) turned into his first successful opera, is set in the 15th Century, when the Catholic Church was under siege by the Hussite Protestants of Bohemia. The Jews came under increased suspicion since the reformers, whom the Catholic Church accused of ‘Judaising’ Christianity, were sympathetic to them.
But this setting of sectarian rivalry, which prompted five crusades against the Hussites and the burning at the stake of their founder, Jan Huss, is missing from the production. It is a pity because the libretto by Eugene Scribe is heavy with theological conflict.
The plot begins with a wealthy Jewish jeweller, Eleazar, who is persecuted for working on Sunday, while his devout daughter Rachel is courted by a man who pretends to be Jewish but is a Christian prince. When the ruse is discovered they are condemned to death by the laws of the day, but Rachel takes the blame, allowing the prince to go free.
Both she and her father Eleazar are given opportunities to save themselves if they convert to Christianity, but neither of them is prepared to abandon their faith, which prompts the Catholic Cardinal to invoke the words of Jesus on the cross:
“Forgive them, Father, For they know not what they do.”
Meanwhile, the Cardinal, who was previously married, learns from Eleazar that the daughter whom he thought had died in a fire was rescued by a Jew. It is Eleazar, who could save himself and Rachel by disclosing their identity, but instead he chooses vengeance on the Cardinal and his religion. Just as Rachel is hurled into the boiling cauldron, Eleazar reveals to the Cardinal that she is his long lost-daughter. As Eleazar walks to his death, the chorus triumphantly sings: “Tis done at last, And we have been avenged, Upon the Jews!”
The librettist, Eugene Scribe (1791-1861) frequently contrasts the Cardinal’s forgiveness and charity to Eleazar’s secrecy, revenge and love of money. Scribe, who accepted the French Legion of Honour in 1827 with a speech rejecting the need to be historically accurate was free with his inventions. Thus, we read on the opera’s superscript a supposedly Passover prayer, repeated by Eleazar and Rachel: “Our Father’s God, conceal our mysteries from evil eyes.” What mysteries needed to be concealed? Does this refer to the ‘blood libel’ accusations which Jews endured in the Passover-Easter season? More overt is Eleazar’s avarice when he sells a piece of jewellery to the Emperor’s daughter:
“I trembled lest this woman discover all our secrets.
“How I did curse within my soul those Christians whom I hated.
“Yet how this beloved gold, will fill anew my life with pleasure!
“Oh happy prospect !
“These good gold crowns, this beloved gold,
“Will soon be mine once more. Ducats, florins,
“How fine to fool these Christians!
“How I hate them all, these fiends.”
One can almost see the post-Revolutionary French audiences confirmed in their prejudices about a race that Napoleon called “the most despicable of mankind”, but whom he was ready to accept as French citizens if they gave up ‘usury’.[ii] Did they not agree with the chorus as Eleazar joins his daughter’s fate:
“To the scaffold bear them! These Jews accursed! Well deserve their death!”
In our time when an ever-growing list of titles, including Jane Austen’s Emma, is issued with trigger warnings and theatre productions of playwrights from Shakespeare onward are re-imagined and revised to express contemporary sensibilities, Opera Australia’s La Juive delivers the unalloyed bigotry of its original with no redemptive coda to rescue it from the fires of antisemitism.
In fact, the perverse insertion of Nazi allusions, including a mass of shoes that suddenly drops from above, only confuses the story. Auschwitz is thus crassly invoked which, if you actually recognise it, is the signal to shed a tear for the awful fate that awaits the Jews.
Many historians of antisemitism have observed that sympathy for the Jews is forthcoming only when they are dead. Dara Horn has recently reiterated this insight in a series of acerbic essays in her bestselling book, People Love Dead Jews. As a popular opera, La Juive can take a bow for fulfilling that maxim.
Yet for the contemporary viewer, apprised of the theological progress that has occurred between Christians and Jews, the outdated tropes of La Juive jar, particularly as they have influenced anti-Israel versions of antisemitism. The Anglican minister James Parkes, who authored many books on Christian antisemitism noted: “The frequent repetition in sermons that Jews adopt a policy of an ‘eye for an eye’ in contrast to the Christian doctrine of ‘love towards one’s enemies’ is both false and illogical.”
You would never think so after seeing La Juive.
Dr Rachael Kohn is a broadcaster and author.