Halévy’s disappearance, as I said in my review of La reine de Chypre, is astonishing.
In his day, the Jewish musician was seen as the leader of the French school – France’s greatest opera composer from the 1830s to the 1850s. He was, like his fellow Jew Meyerbeer, a master of both grand opera and opéra comique, loved throughout Europe.
Today, he is only known for one opera, La Juive (1835), an intense work about religious persecution which Mahler, among others, thought one of the greatest operas ever written. (And, yes, the default banner is the set design for Act I.)
Today, almost all his operas have vanished completely. Only seven of his 31 works have been recorded. Most are pirate recordings, one is a German translation, and one was completed by Bizet after Halévy’s death.
And yet many of his other works were smash hits. The serious grand opéras include Guido et Ginevra (1838), set in Renaissance Florence during the Plague; the patriotic Charles VI (1843), French opera’s answer to Henry V; and Le Juif errant (1852), which Théophile Gautier considered an important philosophical opera.
His opéras comiques include L’Éclair (1835), with only four characters and a refined score; Les Mousquetaires de la Reine (1846); Le Val d’Andorre (1848), “the most brilliant total success ever recorded at the Opéra-Comique” to that point; La Fée aux Roses (1849), a tale of sorcery and Indian exoticism; and Jaguarita l’Indienne (1855), about colonialism.
Ruth Jordan’s excellent book on Halévy’s Life and Music (1994) is full of 19th-century critics praising Halévy’s profound learning, originality, and gift for melody.
They make one hungry for more Halévy. But we can’t listen to them.
Many of his operas have never been performed since the nineteenth century, and a lucky handful have an aria apiece recorded.
Those who know La Juive – with the electrifying anathema Act III finale, Eléazar’s “Rachel, quand du Seigneur”, the Seder scene, and Rachel’s “Il va venir” – can guess what they’re missing.
Don’t these whet your appetite?
A young American goes blind in a lightning storm, and is nursed back to health by one of two sisters. When he recovers his sight, he falls in love with the wrong woman.
An intimate work, with four soloists, and no chorus – written the year after his grand opera masterpiece, La juive.
A hit in Paris, and performed worldwide. “Its delicious score,” Félix Clément wrote, “proves the suppleness of the composer’s talent…”
Revue & gazette musicale called it “a musical tour de force…” Years later: “This is not the traditional sort of music which pleases by offering easily memorisable tunes. It is innovative, original, eminently distinguished; it is sprightly and attractive, blazing a new trail, audacious as well as graceful, knocking on the doors of the future with lively, rich, animated, powerful orchestration, one that has nothing in common with that brass band sound which has been grandiloquently described as Modern Instrumentation… Originality, richness and variety loom large from every section of the orchestra. It is a drama, a many-voiced musical comedy, radiating life and youth.”
One recording, in German.
Here’s the tenor aria:
Guido et Ginevra (1838)
A historical opera: a love story in Renaissance Florence, set against the backdrop of the plague.
Berlioz considered it a work of great value, with many beautiful pieces.
“The score of Guido et Ginevra adds a beautiful jewel to M. Halévy’s crown. Placed on the borders of the Italian and German schools he worthily continues the great tradition of Méhul, Lesueur and Cherubini, revitalising it by drawing on new sources, and rising as its glorious representative.”
Charles VI (1843)
A patriotic historical opera set during the 100 Years’ War; French opera’s answer to Henry V, with a once famous chorus “Guerre aux tyrans!”.
Félix Clément: “A remarkable work that does great honour to the French school.” Blanchard (Revue & gazette musicale) & Théophile Gautier also hailed it.
It has some terrific scenes (the card duet, the procession of ghosts), but needs a better recording than the Compiègne production.
Les mousquetaires de la reine (1846)
A swashbuckling opéra comique, à la Dumas.
A hit. Clément: “Without doubt the best work the maestro wrote for the Opéra-comique; all carries the mark of his exquisite sensibility and the distinction of his wit.”
Blanchard: “This is the most outstanding score of our time … indisputably places the composer at the head of our French school of music.”
Le val d’Andorre (1848)
A pastoral semiseria, about a young man loved by three women, and who tries to avoid conscription into the French army but is condemned to death.
Berlioz wrote that it was one of the most universal, spontaneous, and brilliant successes he’d ever seen – and he agreed with the crowd. “I can’t think of many operas that furnish such a number of remarkable pieces, pieces that, what’s more, have the rare happiness of being noted and appreciated at once.”
Revue et gazette musicale: “This is the most brilliant total success ever recorded at the Opéra-Comique. It is epoch-making… It offers that rare fusion of the frolicsome and the pathetic, with a score by a great master, written with a genius’s verve and a profound knowledge of the art. It is unlike any other work of his; different aims, different effects. What we find is purity, delicacy, imagination and mastery – all of which are the elements of his musical individuality.”
La fée aux roses (1849)
Another hit, this one set in magical India, a land of sorcerers, fairies, and enchantment.
Berlioz praised the “brilliant and rich score” (too rich, he wondered?). “The score,” Clément wrote, “is full of delicious thoughts, suave inspirations, and ingenious details of orchestration.”
La tempesta (1850)
Adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest, sung in Italian. Rapturously received at its première in London; the Daily News thought it its creator’s masterpiece.
“It is the work of a poet as well as a musician. Like all Halévy’s work it is profound in thought and masterly in construction, while it is bold, free, imaginative and dramatic, with a great deal of expressive melody, set off by the most varied and elegant instrumentation.”
Le juif errant (1852)
A monumental mythico-historical opera, set in 12th century Antwerp and the Byzantine Empire. Ends with Judgement Day.
Revue & gazette musicale thought it Halévy’s best work since La juive. Théophile Gautier believed it an important philosophical work; “Le juif errant is a symbol of humanity moving on in search of an ideal”.
Jaguarita l’indienne (1855)
An opera about colonialism, set in 18th century Dutch Guyana.
Clément thought it one of Halévy’s best opéra-comiques. “Invention, conscientious and elegant interpretation of the poem, new and original harmony, rich and varied instrumentation, the opera of Jaguarita offers all these qualities to the highest degree… One of those operas that musicians always hear with pleasure.”
Hopefully these, and Halévy’s other works, will soon be restored to the light of day!