Grand Opera's Ultimate Spectacle: 'La Juive'

woo-1649-LaJuive mainFor a few years now, On Stranger Tides, a blockbuster film in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, has been topping lists of the most expensive movies ever made, with a budget approaching 400 million dollars.  But, if you think that sounds extreme -- or maybe absurd -- consider this: The film's worldwide income has been reported as more than one billion dollars.

So, it seems that movie-goers are more than willing to pay top dollar for exorbitantly expensive shows.  What they're buying, along with big name stars, is spectacular entertainment.

These days, movie spectacle is often created digitally -- miracles born of microchips -- yet that hardly makes it cheap.  Imagine the legions of digital artists and technicians required for your average, special-effects extravaganza.  And "old" movies had extreme costs of their own:  Constructing enormous, real-life sets, and assembling crowds of thousands made similar budgetary demands.

But what about before there were movies?  Did people line up for mind-bending spectacle before the days of James Cameron, Joseph Mankiewicz, or even Cecil B. Demille?  And if so, where did they find it?  Well, some of them went to the opera.

The pinnacle of spectacular opera productions may have come during the heyday of French Grand Opera, in 19th-century Paris, when Giacomo Meyerbeer was turning out hits such as L'Africaine and Les Huguenots.  But in 1835, not long before audiences were overwhelmed by the astonishing shipwreck scene in L'Africaine, Meyerbeer got some competition from Fromental Halévy's new opera La Juive -- The Jewess.   

Halévy was born in Paris in 1799.  HIs parents were Jewish, and his father, Elias Levy, was a poet and scholar.  The family name was changed to Halévy when the composer was just a boy. La Juive was premiered at the Paris Opéra, in 1835, in what many then considered the most lavish opera production in history.

Though La Juive is the only work by Halévy that we're likely to hear today, he was actually among the most successful composers of his time.  He wrote some three dozen operas altogether, ranging from full scale grand operas to romantic comedies.  He was also a prominent professor at the Paris Conservatory, where his students included Camille Saint-Saens, Georges Bizet and Charles Gounod.

Halévy's many, distinguished admirers included Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner and Gustav Mahler.  Wagner wrote of Halévy's operas, "I have never heard music which has transported me so completely to a particular historical epoch."  Mahler, one of the 19th century's most famous opera conductors, said of La Juive, "I am absolutely overwhelmed by this wonderful, majestic work.  I regard it as one of the greatest operas ever created."

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Halévy's La Juive from the Lyon Opera, in France.  The stars are tenor Nikolai Schukoff as Eléazar and soprano Rachel Harnisch as Rachel, the opera's title character, in a production led by conductor Daniele Rustioni.