With a libretto by Eugene Scribe, Halévy’s most famous opera lies somewhere between »Troubadour « and »Nathan the Wise« in terms of its subject matter. Not only have the sons of the Jew Eleazar been burned at the stake by Cardinal Brogny, but time and again the goldsmith, together with his putative daughter Rachel, must defend himself against anti-Semitic attacks. Prince Leopold, who has fallen in love with Rachel and gained her trust while disguised as a Jew, saves them from a murderous crowd. When Leopold’s deception comes to light, father and daughter are sentenced to death. At the very moment when they face a horrible execution, Eleazar reveals his secret to Brogny: Rachel is not Jewish, but in fact the Brogny’s own daughter, long believed dead.
In his opera »The Jewess« Halévy has created a terrifying cautionary tale of conflict between Jews and Christians, revealed through the character of Eleazar, torn between parental love and a thirst for revenge while living in an anti-Semitic society.
Constance, a feast day. Léopold’s victory over the Hussites is to be celebrated with a Te Deum and a public festival.
When he hears the sound of hammering coming from the workshop of the Jewish goldsmith Eléazar, City Provost Ruggiero has him arrested. Eléazar says that as a Jew he is not bound by Christian feast days, and furthermore he has lost his sons who were burnt at the stake by Christians. Ruggiero wants to have him taken away to be executed when Cardinal Brogni appears. Eléazar knows Brogni from when he lived in Rome: he was a judge there many years ago and had banished Eléazar from the city. Brogni only became a priest after he had lost his wife and daughter in a fire. He is in Constance today to open the Council to reunite Christendom. Brogni pardons Eléazar because he hopes that his clemency will win over the Jew to the Christian faith.
Disguised as the Jewish artist Samuel, Léopold serenades Rachel. She invites her secret lover to spend the evening at her father’s house for the Passover meal.
While the women of the city prepare the masked parade, the men enjoy the wine, which instead of water, is flowing from the fountain.
Ruggiero discovers Rachel and her father on the church steps and tells everybody to follow Christ’s example and throw the merchants out of the Temple, whereupon the drunken crowd wants to drown the Jews in Lake Constance. Léopold disguised as a Jew stands in front of Rachel to protect her. Sergeant Albert alone recognises him. To everybody’s astonishment, he orders to guard to protect the lives of the threatened Jews.
The parade begins.
The Passover meal is celebrated at Eléazar’s house. Rachel watches Samuel (alias Léopold) drop the piece of unleavened bread he is offered on the floor. There is a knock at the door and the small congregation hides. It is Eudoxia, Léopold’s wife who wishes to buy a gold chain for her husband in celebration of his victory. Eléazar promises to deliver the chain to her the next day. After the guests leave, Rachel, filled with misgiving, waits for Samuel to return. She has promised to meet him in secret. When he arrives, he admits that he is a Christian. The law punishes love between a Christian and Jewess with the death penalty. They decide to flee together. Eléazar stands in their way. Rachel soothes his anger. When Eléazar is prepared to accept Léopold as his son-in-law, Léopold flees.
Eudoxia has rehearsed a ballet, in which she dances the leading role, for the victory celebration in honour of her husband. Rachel has secretly followed Léopold. She allows Eudoxia to cast her in the role of »slave«. In this way, she wishes to clarify Léopold’s identity and his connection with Eudoxia.
The victory celebration begins. As it reaches its climax, Eudoxia places the chain brought by Eléazar around her husband’s neck. Rachel intervenes and claims that she, a Jewess, and Léopold are lovers. Cardinal Brogni excommunicates Léopold and curses the two Jews.
Eudoxia implores the imprisoned Rachel to withdraw her accusation and, in so doing, to save her husband’s life. Cardinal Brogni also appears and promises his help to the young woman, to whom he feels intensely drawn. In addition, he tries to persuade her father to convert. Eléazar is outraged and refuses. Instead he reveals to Brogni that the daughter Brogni believed dead was saved from the fire by a Jew but he will take the secret of her whereabouts with him to the grave. In this way, he will take vengeance on the Christian.
Left behind alone, Eléazar remembers how God entrusted Brogni’s child to him and how he dedicated his whole life to Rachel’s well-being. He does not want to sacrifice Rachel to his hatred of Christians: he renounces his revenge. However, when he hears the cries from a pogrom in the streets, he thinks he understand what God is asking him to do: to bear witness in death together with his daughter to the God of Israel.
The people are looking forward to the public execution of the Jews who are to be thrown into a cauldron of boiling water.
Ruggiero reads out the sentence: only Léopold was pardoned. Eléazar protests are in vain because Rachel withdrew her accusation herself.
Eléazar also fails, given his imminent death, to tell Rachel the truth about her parentage. Instead he explains that she can be saved if she converts to Christianity. Rachel refuses.
Brogni begs Eléazar to reveal the whereabouts of his daughter which he does - at the moment of her death.