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FINANCIAL TIME : Die Jüdin von Toledo at Semperoper Dresden is a dazzling but difficult opera — review 12/02/2024

Detlev Glanert’s new work is musically impressive, though the staging and story are problematic

"In a meme currently doing the rounds on the internet, the plots of dozens of operas are summarised with: “She dies.” While this is true, an acceptably feminist perspective can be — and often is — won through subversive stagings. But a brand new opera in which the title figure serves only to sing of her love for the man before being brutally murdered — really?

Dresden’s Semperoper has thrown abundant resources at Detlev Glanert’s Die Jüdin von Toledo (“The Jewish Woman of Toledo”). A huge orchestra, a top-drawer cast, a high-carat stage director and a fine conductor — what’s not to love? Glanert, who has already penned a dozen operas, knows what he is doing. His music is firmly rooted in Germanic tradition (Wagner, Strauss and Berg are invoked), and both his vocal writing and his orchestration are breathtakingly assured.

But who thought that Franz Grillparzer’s 1855 play was a good literary basis for an opera, and why? Its basic trope (the lustful Jewish woman) is antisemitic, and its view of women (Queen Eleonore, not being lustful, is a Lady Macbeth type) at the very best dated. Can it really be read at a meta level as the story of the eternal clash of three religions? The Moors are at the gate, God is on our side, and the Jews cannot be trusted. Stage director Robert Carsen reads Glanert’s haunting love scene between Rahel and Alfonso VIII as a dream of religious utopia. The music echoes Tristan und Isolde, with Brangäne’s warnings replaced by the recitation of a love poem. On stage, Muslims, Jews and Christians pray together and embrace.

In a scene from an opera, in an interior with arches and a vaulted ceiling, Muslims, Jews and Christians are at prayer

Robert Carsen’s production shows Muslims, Jews and Christians praying together © Ludwig Olah

This cannot end well, and it doesn’t. Glanert’s score repeatedly juxtaposes delicately eastern sounds (Nassib Ahmadieh plays the oud) with harsh, militaristic outbursts. Cultural appropriation? Perhaps not, but Edward Said’s orientalism is alive and well. It sounds gorgeous; it feels lush. Does that make it good?

For the final scene, Carsen outdoes himself with stage clichés. The priest blesses the machine guns of the men, who head into battle. While video projections show grainy war footage of bombed cities and military aircraft, the soldiers don Jewish prayer shawls and die, viewed impassively by the child prince. Everything, everywhere, all at once. The audience cheers.

In the title role, Heidi Stober is formidable, singing with passion and purity; Lilly Jørstad is her perfect foil as buttoned-up sister Esther. Christoph Pohl, as Alfonso VIII in a suit, sings with all the resolve and conviction his character lacks, and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner gives her all as the cold-blooded Queen Eleonore. Glanert wrote these roles for these singers, and they fit like gloves.

Jonathan Darlington draws a dizzying spectrum of colour and nuance from a Staatskapelle Dresden on top form. This is an impressive performance of a dazzling score. But, guys, it is 2024. It’s time to end the femicide."


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