Opera, Liberalism, and Antisemitism in Nineteenth-Century France: The Politics of Halevy's "La Juive" (review)
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Reviewed by
Opera, Liberalism, and Antisemitism in Nineteenth-Century France: The Politics of Halévy’s “La Juive” Diana R. Hallman Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002 390 pages, $70.00

Starting with the premiere of Auber's La muette de Portici (Paris, 1828), French grand opera enjoyed well over fifty years of enormous popularity. One of the most successful of the genre was Fromental Halévy's La Juive (Paris, 1835), which remained in the standard repertory all over the civilized world for close to sixty years. For nearly a century (up to 5 October 1933, to be exact), it was given regularly in Vienna. Its first postwar reappearance was in concert form in January 1981, and a staged revival in late 1999 was such a success that it has continued to run in each ensuing season. La Juive was equally a repertory fixture in France. Although the Paris Opéra dropped it for a while in 1893 (reviving it in the 1930s), it continued to be given in other Parisian theaters for quite a few years and in the French provinces (e.g., Rouen) as late as the 1938-39 season. After the war, it was performed in Belgium and the French provinces well into the 1950s and 1960s. Once a popular vehicle for Caruso and later Martinelli, the opera again took the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in the autumn of 2003, after an absence of nearly seventy years, drawing sold-out houses. La Juive, it seems, is coming back.

The book under review is the first one in English devoted entirely to Halévy's greatwork. Its author seems to deliver both more and less than her title (Opera, Liberalism, and Antisemitism in Nineteenth-Century France) implies. Outside of La Juive, the book contains little on opera in nineteenth-century France, a bit more on liberalism, and an entire chapter on anti-Semitism. The subtitle, The Politics of Halévy's "La Juive," does not tell us much, either. The title of the Ph.D. dissertation from which this book grew, "The French Grand Opera La Juive (1835): A Socio-Historical Study," would have more accurately reflected Hallman's subject, even in its current expanded form. [End Page 450]

While there is much to appreciate about Hallman's book, which I will address later, the above brings me to one of my problems with this volume. Just as it is my view that the title does not accurately reflect the subject matter, the same can be said about the headings of two of the most important individual chapters. Chapter 4, which is the longest and perhaps most significant of the volume, is called "Jewish-Christian Opposition in Music and Drama" but deals primarily with the development of the libretto by Scribe and its various versions, as well as with the internal conflicts of Eléazar and Rachel. In the interest of reader-friendliness and simplicity, I would have broken chapter 4 into two separate chapters: "The Development of Scribe's Final Libretto for La Juive" and "The Internal Conflicts of the Two Principal Characters."

By the same token, chapter 6, which deals with anti-Semitism in France during the July Monarchy (when the libretto was in progress) through the time of the opera's premiere, is confusingly entitled "The Milieu of La Juive: Jewish Imagery and Identity during the July Monarchy." I would have gotten a more accurate idea of what this chapter concerns had it been called "French Anti-Semitism in the 1830s and Beyond."

In this chapter Hallman devotes some fifty-three pages to the "milieu," largely by discussing French anti-Semitism, which she blames partly on the reputation of Jews as moneylenders who charged usurious rates, but of course that problem was hardly limited to France. Also, depending on one's definition of anti-Semitism, it could just as easily be argued that there was little or no formal (i.e., government-induced) anti-Semitism in France at the time.1 There were no concentration camps, no pogroms, no ghettos, no curfews, no limits on where and how Jews could work. It is true that some French people were anti-Semitic...