The moon shone brightly as more than 7,500 people came Wednesday night to Masada, on the shores of the Dead Sea, for the dress rehearsal of Verdi’s La Traviata. For the moment, the desert had disappeared, and they found themselves in a reception area that evoked a Parisian street—complete with a boulangerie, brasserie, and charcuterie and arches suggesting the Arc de Triomphe. That was part of the magic of the Opera Festival at Masada, now in its fifth year. Only after tasting the delights of this transported milieu did the audience enter the glittering and colorful, but ultimately tragic, world of the demi-monde.
The opera’s heroine, Violetta Valéry, is young, vital, and beautiful, with an unusual capacity for self-sacrifice. But she is La Traviata (the fallen one), a kept woman. Hers was a position characteristic of mid 19th century France. And Violetta has consumption, another characteristic ill of the 19th century, especially of 19th-century heroines. To make everything worse, after she has given up her life of luxury to be with Alfredo, the man she loves, his father arrives to break up the relationship. After many complications, without which no opera could get by, and just as true love is about to triumph, Violetta dies.
There was a real-life Violetta named Marie Duplessis, who by the age of 17 was one of the most sought-after women in Paris. She also hosted a salon, where artists, writers, and politicians gathered. In 1844 an affair began between Duplessis and Alexandre Dumas fils, the poor and illegitimate son of the writer Alexandre Dumas. Realizing after a year that he could never have her all to himself, he ended the affair. She died of consumption two years later, at 23.
A few months after her death, Dumas fils wrote a novel based on their affair, La Dame aux Camelias, and after its success he turned it into a play. That became the inspiration for Verdi’s opera.
The role of Violetta, as sung by Aurelia Florian, is one of sheer beauty and memorable arias, for example, Ah, fors’è lui (Ah, perhaps he is the one). But opera is spectacle, and besides the many haunting arias and duets there were festive party scenes with the Israeli Opera Chorus and the Kielce Dance Theater in lavish, LED-lit costumes designed by Joanna Medynska. In one party scene the women wore skirts that consisted of colorful streamers hanging from the hip on a hoop.
And, of course, there were fireworks, and fire, and horses, and wagons, and acrobats on stilts—all the things that make opera fun for the masses. Looming behind the sparkling stage, like a harbinger of Violetta’s death, was the mountain itself, with its 2,000-year-old fortress and palace.
Daniel Oren, who has conducted all the opera productions at Masada, each time with the Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion, had this to say about the experience: “Year after year I stand in awe in front of this powerful and majestic mountain and sense in my very being the pure harmony between nature and music in a country like Israel which is full of traditions yet in which the opera tradition is still young.”
La Traviata was the first opera ever presented in pre-state Israel. That was in July 1923, in Tel Aviv. It was first performed by the Tel Aviv-based Israeli Opera in May 1987.
This was the fourth time in five years that the Israeli Opera Festival returned to Masada. Previously, the festival featured Nabucco, Aïda, and Carmen, drawing tens of thousands of spectators from Israel and abroad. These expensive productions involve trucking in many tons of equipment over winding roads, in essence setting up an entire “city” for backstage workers, extras, and the performers themselves, plus the themed reception area—all of which must be dismantled and rebuilt anew.
This year’s festival will extend to Acco, in the north of the country, with an all-Mozart program, including Don Giovanni, Requiem, and an abbreviated version in Hebrew (for the entire family) of The Magic Flute.
Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. The image is by Yossi Zwecker, copyright 2014 by the Israeli Opera.