Halévy: La Juive
American tenor Richard Tucker made his Metropolitan Opera debut January 25, 1945 as Enzo in Ponchielli's La Gioconda. It was the start of a Met career that lasted just a few weeks short of thirty years, encompassing more than 700 performances in 30 different roles. Despite all of the triumphs for Tucker there was one ambition that remained unfulfilled. He long dreamed of performing the role of the Jewish goldsmith Eléazar in Jacques Fromental Halévy's La Juive at the Met. It is easy to understand why Eléazar so appealed to Tucker. It was Enrico Caruso's last new role at the Metropolitan Opera, indeed, the his final performance, on Christmas Eve, 1920. Tucker, a devout Jew who continued to perform as a cantor even after the onset of his spectacular operatic career, relished the opportunity to sing a dramatic role that includes the leading of a Passover Seder.
Tucker did appear in La Juive on several occasionsat Carnegie Hall in 1964, London and New Orleans in 1973, and Barcelona in 1974. However, Tucker's continued requests to stage La Juive at the Met encountered considerable resistance. The Met was unwilling to chance the expense of producing what they viewed as an obscure 19th century French grand opera. Just after New Year's Day, 1975, Richard Tucker learned that finally, in honor of his 30th anniversary, the Met would stage La Juive as part of its 1975-76 season. In addition to Tucker, the cast would include Beverly Sills, Nicolai Gedda and Paul Plishka, with Leonard Bernstein conducting.
Tucker was scheduled to meet with the Met management January 9, following his return from a joint recital in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with his dear friend, baritone Robert Merrill. But on January 8, during the afternoon preceding the concert, Richard Tucker suffered a fatal heart attack, and died at the age of 61. The funeral service was held on the stage of the Met, in order to accommodate all of the people who wished to pay their respects.
Although the Met La Juive never came to fruition, several recordings do allow us to evaluate Tucker's assumption of the role of Eléazar. The tenor recorded extended excerpts for RCA in 1974. In addition, recordings of the New Orleans and London productions have circulated for many years on private labels. This recent MYTO issue presents the March 4, 1973 concert performance at London's Royal Festival Hall. It should be mentioned at the outset that in this performance, Halévy's opera is severely abridged, retaining approximately 2 1/2 hours of the more than four hours of music found in the complete score.
Still, the London performance offers a vivid representation of Tucker's memorable assumption of this role. It would be dishonest to suggest that the 60-year old Tucker sounds as he did in earlier decades. Still, it is hard to think of any other tenor in his seventh decade who sang with such beauty of tone, power, and security throughout all registers. Indeed, Tucker's vocalism would be the envy of most tenors many years his junior.
Tucker was always a passionate singer, and there is temperament aplenty to be found in this performance, notably in the confrontation with Cardinal Brogny in Act IV and the ensuing ariaby far the opera's most famous excerpt, "Rachel, quand du Seigneur." But that aria also contains effective moments of restraint, such as the whispered "c'est moi" when Eléazar realizes that it is he who is in part responsible for his daughter's impending death. Likewise, the Passover scene that begins Act II offers an elegantly sustained line and dignity of utterance. Tucker's characteristically forward diction is also most welcome.
The remainder of the principals, while perhaps not on Tucker's level, are at least adequate and some, far better than that. Soprano Yasuko Hayashi offers a beautifully-sung and intense portrayal of Rachel, Eléazar's daughter. Bass David Gwynne is a sonorous, if somewhat soft-grained Cardinal De Brogny, Eléazar's nemesis. Michèle Le Bris is a bright-toned Princess Eudoxie. Tenor Juan Sabate manages to traverse Prince Leopold's stratospheric tessitura.
This performance, taped in stereo, was previously available on CD courtesy of Legato Classics. The sound of the MYTO release sounds a bit more focused, with less tape hiss. However, I don't think the difference in sonic quality is so pronounced that one would necessarily feel compelled to replace the Legato Classics set with the new MYTO.
A 1989 Philips recording presents a far more extensive, though by no means complete, representation of Halévy's score. That set seems to be currently out of print, although I have seen it in "ãspecial imports" sections in various Tower Records locations in the US. José Carreras is typically ardent as Eléazar, but in much less secure voice than Tucker. Julia Varady is an exceptional Rachel, however. Another fine American tenor, Neil Shicoff, scored a triumph in recent performances of La Juive at the Vienna State Opera. Perhaps his Eléazar will serve as the focal point for a new, complete recording of this moving work, one of the most popular operas of the 19th century. In the meanwhile, this MYTO release offers a valuable souvenir of a great singer in one of his most cherished roles.
One curious note. The essay in the booklet that accompanies the MYTO set states that Tucker "a devout Jew·never appeared on the Sabbath." It is certainly true that Richard Tucker was a profoundly religious man. Still, assuming MYTO is referring to the Jewish Sabbath (i.e. sundown on Friday to sundown Saturday), I'd be interested to know who impersonated Tucker in dozens of Metropolitan Opera Saturday afternoon broadcasts.