Yesterday I fell in love. American soprano Kristin Lewis swept me off my feet. In the role of Aïda in Verdi’s opera of the same name, performed last night at the foot of Masada, she was elegant, beautiful, and pitiable. Her voice, so clear and luminous, called to mind a friend’s description of fine opera: “It takes your heart and gives it a pat.”
Lewis was personable offstage too. When asked before the performance about how it felt to sing such a sad role, she responded, “Most of the roles I sing are sad.” Then she laughed lightly. “But I’m good at that.”
The performance was a dress rehearsal for the second annual Opera at Masada event. Last year, more than 50,000 people, including 4,000 tourists who had come specially for the musical events, saw the Masada performances of Verdi’s Nabucco and a gala concert by Jessye Norman. This year, similar numbers are expected for the four performances of Aïda, a concert by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli at Masada on June 12, and more Verdi and other concerts in Jerusalem in early June.
Bringing the Israeli Opera from its Tel Aviv home to the foot of a mountain in the desert, in the lowest place on earth, is a huge challenge.
“Opera, wherever you do it, is a larger-than-life genre […] and in the desert, it has to be even grander,” said Michael Ajzenstadt, the Israeli Opera’s artistic director. “You have to have larger numbers of everything. So if you need a choir of 80 in the opera house, you need 150 in the desert.”
It was certainly grand last night. Though conductor Daniel Oren walked in with a towel draped over his right shoulder, as if setting a casual tone, the music was sublime and the soloists were superb.
Even the plot unfolded with inexorable logic: Ethiopia and Egypt are at war. Aïda, the daughter of the Ethiopian king but now a captive slave in Egypt, is torn between her love for the Egyptian hero Radames and her duty to her father and her people. It is an impossible choice, and the end is tragic.
But the romance of it! Imagine Radames singing, in the opening scene, “Heavenly Aïda … mystical garland of light and beauty,” and at the very end, Radames and Aïda in duet, “Brief dream of joy condemned to end in woe! / See brightly opens the sky, an endless morrow!”
The costumes were light and breezy, designed by Denise (Katia) Dufolt for desert conditions. Last night the wind kept blowing, billowing the gowns in a way that added drama to the scenes, though at one point Amneris, Aïda’s rival in love, had to beat back her full and flowing robes.
The set was suitably majestic, with two sphinxes on either side of the stage and an enormous bust of the pharaoh at rear center. In one act two obelisks rose on the stage.
Opera is spectacle, and there was plenty of it, including a brief burst of fireworks and a scene in which Aïda arrives onstage mounted on a camel, with camels also passing in the background. In another scene, Amneris arrives in the royal barge, the waves created by dancers repeatedly flashing the shiny blue lining of their full skirts.
But the overwhelming winner in terms of spectacle was the lighting, by Avi-Yona Bueno, who also created the effects for Nabucco. Bueno “carpeted” the stage with light patterns. Most effective was the Nile, which “flowed” diagonally across the stage with convincing ripples in the back. Even the 1,400-foot-high Masada was bathed in rippling blue light.
This was, however, a rehearsal, and at two points the conductor’s comments broke through the high drama. For the triumphal march in the beginning of Act II, the trumpeters came onstage a few seconds late.
“Who gave you the signal?” maestro Oren asked with annoyance. It turned out that one Gadi was the culprit.
And then the maestro warned both the trumpeters and the troupe of Bedouin dancers who were still not up to scratch, “You’re not going home yet!”
By the time of Aïda’s Masada premiere, Saturday night, I’m sure the kinks will be ironed out and Verdi’s masterpiece will do its magic. Last night, even with the kinks, Aïda was magical.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.