Grand Opera's Ultimate Spectacle: 'La Juive'
Halévy's opera has five acts, all set in the German city of Constance, near the Swiss border.
The story takes place in 1414, during the historic Council of Constance, convened by Emperor Sigismond. The Council was called to end a schism in the Catholic Church, and to condemn the Czech reformer Jan Hus. The President of the Council is Cardinal de Brogni, and some events in his past become crucial later in the opera.
While Brogni was living in Rome, his house was burned, and he discovered the bodies of his family in the ruins. At the same time, a Jew named Eléazar found a baby girl in the remains of burned home, and took her in as his own daughter. Now, both Brogni and Eléazar are in Constance, where Brogni is leading the Council, and Eléazar is working as a jeweler and goldsmith.
In ACT ONE, we see a city square. On one side there's a church, where a Te Deum is being sung. On the other side Eléazar is hard at work -- and that's a problem. It's a Sunday, and a town official called Ruggiero threatens to arrest Eléazar for working on the Sabbath. Cardinal Brogni intervenes, on the side of leniency, and Eléazar is released.
We also meet Eléazar's beautiful young daughter, Rachel. She's in love with a man she knows as "Samuel," a Jewish painter. He's actually Prince Léopold, son of the Emperor. But for now, as "Samuel," he serenades Rachel. As he's leaving, Rachel invites him to join her family for a Passover seder, and he agrees to return the following evening.
Townspeople then gather to greet an imperial procession. Swept along in the crowd, Rachel and Eléazar find themselves on the steps of a church, which angers Ruggiero. He denounces them, and the crowd threatens to throw them both into Lake Constance. But as the situation grows dangerous, Samuel reappears and steps in. The others, including Ruggiero, recognize him as Prince Léopold. The crowd backs down, and Rachel and Eléazar are released. But as the act ends, they're left wondering how the man they know as a Jew called Samuel was able to calm an angry Christian mob.
As ACT TWO begins, Eléazar is presiding over the Passover seder, and he calls on God to punish any traitors to the Jewish cause. When unleavened bread is passed around, Rachel notices that "Samuel" -- that is, Léopold -- quietly drops his piece of bread on the floor.
A knock is heard at the door. Not knowing who it is, the family quickly hides all traces of the seder. The knock is answered, and we meet the Christian Princess Eudoxie. She's there to order a gold chain from Eléazar, as a gift for her husband. That husband is actually Léopold, though she doesn't recognize him in his Jewish clothes. Eléazar accepts the order for the chain, and promises to deliver it the next evening.
All the while, Rachel has been keeping a close eye on Samuel. He seemed uncomfortable when Eudoxie arrived, trying to hide his face. And he had already discarded his unleavened bread. Rachel also remembers the day before, when Samuel somehow dispersed an angry Christian mob.
Now she wants him to explain himself. He hesitates, and then promises to come back later, when he can speak to her privately. While he's gone, Rachel sings one of the opera's best-known arias, anticipating his return, but afraid of what he might tell her.
When Léopold does return, he finally admits that he's a Christian. Rachel is both surprised, and fearful. She reminds him that according to law, any Jewish woman who loves a Christian is condemned to death. He says he never meant to put her in danger -- that his love for her had been too strong to resist, and he lied about his identity to be with her.
Eléazar then catches the two together. He denounces Léopold for accepting his hospitality, and then compromising his daughter's honor. But while Eléazar is furious, he still knows Léopold as Samuel, and is willing to forgive a fellow Jew. When Léopold then admits he's a Christian, Eléazar's anger is about to burn over. But Rachel comes between the two men. She tells her father that she and Léopold are lovers, and that she is equally to blame.
Eléazar relents again, saying he'll allow the two to be married. But Léopold than amazes Rachel by saying that's not possible. Léopold, of course, is already married to Eudoxie. But rather than confess his true identity, and admit to adultery, he implies he could never marry a Jew. As the act ends, Rachel is heartbroken. Eléazar denounces them both, calling on God to curse the Christians, and anyone who loves them.
ACT THREE takes place at the royal palace, where Eudoxie is waiting for Léopold, so they can celebrate his recent victory over the Hussites. We soon learn that Rachel is also at the palace. She has followed Léopold there, hoping to learn more about him, and Eudoxie agrees to hire Rachel as a servant.
When Léopold arrives, Rachel doesn't recognize him in his royal finery. As the celebration is set to begin, Eléazar is ushered in. He has come, as promised, to deliver the elegant gold chain Eudoxie ordered as a present for her husband.
As the chain is being presented, Rachel does recognize Léopold, and she interrupts. She challenges him to acknowledge her, saying Léopold is a criminal. The powerful Cardinal Brogni is also present, and demands an explanation. Rachel declares that the Prince is unworthy of Eudoxie's gift: He has been the lover of a Jewish woman, and according to law, they should both put to death.
Eléazar turns to Brogni, and demands that the offenders be punished -- while secretly hoping that God will strike him down, as well. Léopold has nothing to say for himself, leaving Brogni with little choice. As the act ends, the Cardinal condemns Rachel, Eléazar, and Prince Léopold to die.
As ACT FOUR begins, Princess Eudoxie summons Rachel to her rooms. Rachel must make one last appearance before the Council, to plead her case. Eudoxie begs her to recant her accusation, so Léopold can be spared. At first, Rachel refuses. But as Eudoxie envisions Léopold's death, Rachel seems to relent. She says a Jew can be just as forgiving as a Christian.
As Rachel is being led to the Council Chamber, Cardinal Brogni approaches her. He hopes her statement might save her. Rachel tells him only that she'll place herself in God's hands, and that her confession will save someone she loves.
Rachel is taken away, and Brogni then goes to Eléazar, saying he can save his life, and his daughter's, by renouncing his faith. Eléazar refuses. But he also has some news of his own. He reminds Brogni of his past, and the daughter Brogni lost long ago, when his house burned down in Rome. Eléazar says the daughter survived, and was raised by a Jew, and that he knows where she is. But Eléazar refuses to tell Brogni anything more.
As the act ends, Eléazar is torn. He believes he can save Rachel by telling the truth -- that Rachel is actually Brogni's daughter. But he also believes she'll only be saved if she renounces her faith, and accepts her Christian roots.
In ACT FIVE, the ruthless official Ruggiero reveals the Council's verdict. Rachel and Eléazar will be burned alive as heretics, but Léopold will be spared, and sentenced to exile. Rachel, it turns out, has exonerated him.
As the death sentences are about to be carried out, Brogni tells Rachel that she can save her own life by becoming a Christian. She refuses, proudly telling Eléazar not to let the crowd see him weeping for her. Then she's led away, toward the burning pyre.
As the crowd quietly prays, Brogni approaches Eléazar, begging him to reveal where his daughter is. Eléazar turns toward Rachel. As she's being thrown into the flames he points to her, and tells Brogni, "Your daughter is right there!" Then Eléazar walks into the flames himself. The crowd cries out that justice is done, and the opera ends.