La Juive, Barbican Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

It's probably not what we need right now - more religious intolerance, rivalry, hatred - but for all that, Eugène Scribe's libretto for Fromental Halévy's La Juive is crudely drawn in the most inflammatory terms - The Merchant of Venice pales by comparison. You can hear why this red-blooded revenger's tragedy was once held in such popular esteem by the grand opera-going public.

There are great soloistic opportunities, barnstorming ensembles and Halévy has a keen ear for special effects, predating Wagner and Verdi in his deployment of anvils. And dramatically? Well, the improbability builds nicely towards the shock revelation and gruesome pay-off: the vengeful Jew's adopted daughter is not a Jew at all but the daughter of his Christian arch-rival - revealed only as she is hurled into a cauldron of boiling water. Yes, this is the opera that redefines the term "pot boiler".

But, as the Royal Opera successfully realised here, a little (actually rather more than a little) judicious cutting and it still comes on strong in a concert setting. With everybody downstage and up-front, and a chorus unhampered by "business", the impact is undeniable. The organ-buttressed choral paeans were quite thrilling here and, say what you like about Halévy's dogged adherence to French grand-opera conventions, there are moments here that do manage to transcend the genre - his beautiful setting of the Passover prayers, for one.

Casting was strong. Marina Poplavskaya, a Jette Parker Young Artist in the role of Rachel, the daughter, for once made clear why an opera so fixated on the tenor role of Eléazar is called La Juive (the Jewess). What a future this striking-looking and -sounding young singer has. Her conviction is extraordinary, her inwardness special and she has the perfect vocal balance for the lirico-spinto repertoire - a big, vibrant sound capable of myriad refinements. She can spin truly rapt pianissimi, but there's sufficient steel in the voice to dominate in extremis. Mark my words, stardom beckons.

It already has for BBC Cardiff Singer of the World winner Nicole Cabell. In the "decorative" coloratura role of Princess Eudoxie, whose "haute couture" vocal lines are as richly embellished as the jewels she craves, Cabell provided the kind of glamour and awareness that wins recording contracts. She just has - with Universal - and company executives were no doubt salivating at the quality of her show-stopping aria in act three.

Dennis O'Neill (Eléazar) can still pull it out and did in his act four show-stopper. This is a man, one always feels, who cares about the craft of singing. His vocal longevity is a tribute to his technique. His much-admired mezza voce still draws one in. And as his great rival Cardinal Brogni, Alastair Miles' authority was self-evident with chills and compassion exacted from his charismatic bottom notes.

Driving the whole enterprise, conductor Daniel Oren looked like he might take off in his excitement for the score. His enthusiasm was catching.

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