Some performers become inextricably linked to a certain character they create for stage or screen. No matter who tries to take on the role, Yul Brynner will always be the King of Siam, Rex Harrison is Henry Higgins, Burl Ives will always be Big Daddy and Sean Connery is the one true James Bond.
The same holds true for the world of opera. Tenor Neil Shicoff has found himself strongly linked to the role of the doomed 15th century Jewish patriarch Eleazar in Fromental Helvey’s “La Juive,” a role which speaks volume about the effects of intolerance and religious fanaticism on the human experience. While it may be easy to identify a personal shading to Shicoff’s affinity with the role (the Brooklyn-born Shicoff is the son of a cantor and he also lost family members in the Holocaust), the depth which this particular artist brings to the complex and emotional character has ensured he is the definitive interpreter of Eleazar.
Paula Heil Fisher’s magnificent documentary “Finding Eleazar” follows Shicoff during 2003, when he is called upon to present two very different versions of the role. One is for a gala performance at the Vienna State Opera, where the production has been updated to 1930s Germany, and the other is for a music video directed by Sidney Lumet built around the legendary aria “Rachel, Quand Du Seigneur.”
Fisher’s camera beautifully details Shicoff’s passion, not only for music but for humanity. He considers “La Juive” to be the most contemporary opera of them all, even though its indictment of racial and religious hatred was penned in the mid-19th century. Shicoff vehemently refuses to allow the music video to be set in a wartime concentration camp, as he argues the environment of intolerance is not unique to one time or place but instead is ongoing and universal in its scope. “The point of this opera is that there’s another route to peace,” he bluntly states, effectively squashing the World War II video concept which was being forced on him.
As an intimate portrait of a creative artist, “Finding Eleazar” works magically. Off the stage (and, perhaps, off the soapbox), Shicoff is a refreshingly self-effacing personality – he is not the prima donna one associates with opera royalty. He dubs himself “The Woody Allen of Opera” and lightly rues how wishes he could be Tony Soprano. When a hyperactive press agent compares him to Placido Domingo, Shicoff good-naturedly notes the only difference separating them is the mere fact Domingo is “much older” than him. Shicoff then looks at his 24-year career in opera by joking his success is remarkable since “I’m only 29!”
The film also traces the history of “La Juive.” The opera was one of the most popular of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is remarkable given its theme of anti-Semitic persecution (this was during a time when anti-Semitism was too commonplace, even in relatively enlightened societies). No less a figure than Enrico Caruso felt a kinship with Eleazar, and in one touching scene Shicoff gently embraces the costume that Caruso wore as Eleazar during a Metropolitan Opera engagement. But when the Nazi government banned all performances of “La Juive” in Germany and Austria in the late 1930s, all major opera houses around the world inexplicably dropped the film from their rosters. It was not until the Vienna State Opera resurrected it in 1999 that it returned to public performance.
“Finding Eleazar” is not a perfect film, by any stretch. There is much talk of the music video and a few quick glimpses at the footage, but it is never shown in its entirety. Nor is it explained why Sidney Lumet is directing it, considering his previous attempt at putting music on film was “The Wiz” (need we say more?). The aria “Rachel, Quand Du Seigneur” is performed by Shicoff from the Vienna State Opera, but the film unwisely superimposes newsreel and modern news footage from places of crisis ranging from 1965 Selma to 2003 Baghdad. It detracts badly from the force of Shicoff’s performance, and the on-again/off-again subtitles for the French-language aria leaves the non-Francophonic viewers clueless about what Eleazar is saying.
Still, “Finding Eleazar” offers a winning tribute to a great performer and his great performance. Bravo, Shicoff!