Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Oren’

Dying for Love and Beauty: La Traviata at Masada

June 13, 2014

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. 


Opera returns to Masada with La Traviata; Mozart to feature in festival’s new northern venue in Acco

January 16, 2014

Verdi’s La Traviata (The Fallen Woman) tells a story of doomed love, set in the City of Lights. In June, Paris will be recreated in the desert as the Israeli Opera resumes its annual festival at Masada, near the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth.

The lead role, Violetta, will be sung by Elena Mosuc, alternating with soprano Aurelia Florian, and Alfredo will be sung by tenor Celso Albelo. The director is Michal Znaniecki and the conductor is Daniel Oren.

For the first time, this year the opera festival will also have a northern venue—the Old City of Acco (Acre)—where Mozart’s operas will be performed in the excavated Crusaders’ Courtyard. The southern and the northern branches of the festival will be held a week apart, so that visitors coming to Israel for the music will be able to enjoy all the performances.

Both the northern and the southern venues are UNESCO World Heritage Sites that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors annually in their own right. Hanna Munitz, the Israeli Opera’s general director, said that she expects as many as 5,000 “culture tourists” from abroad at the performances, and that by mid January some 3,000 tickets had already been sold to tourists.

Part of the experience of opera at Masada is the reception area, which creates the atmosphere for the performances before a single note is sung. For the launch of the Masada opera festival in 2010 with Verdi’s Nabucco, low-slung tables and couches and faux-marble columns created the illusion of a Roman palace. This year, the reception area will be designed to evoke the atmosphere of a Parisian street.

Asked why he thought La Traviata was suited to a desert venue, director Znaniecki replied, “It’s very easy. Because Violetta sings in the first act that Paris is a desert,” expressing her feeling that Paris is a wasteland for her. “My idea was to show this metaphor, to put Paris on the ground and cover it with sand,” Znaniecki said.

Arias from the popular La Traviata are familiar even to people who are not opera buffs. The melody of one aria is well known as the tune of the Ladino love song “Adio Querida” (Farewell, My Love).

The Masada festival, between June 12 and 17, will include a performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra of Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 1 and 9, with international soloists and a choir, conducted by Kent Nagano. The festival will also include a performance of the Idan Raichel Project, an Israeli collaboration between musicians of different backgrounds and faiths.

The Acco festival, June 19 to 21, featuring works by Mozart, will include a semi-staged production of Don Giovanni, a performance of the Requiem, and a shortened version of the Magic Flute, suitable for children.

Among the innovations this year at the Masada festival will be operatic concerts at Dead Sea hotels and flights to Masada by Arkia.

Besides Nabucco, the Israeli Opera has performed Aida and Carmen at Masada. According to Munitz, in 2016 it is planning a coproduction with the Verona Arena Festival, which in 2013 celebrated its 100th year.

As Munitz put it, “A cultural project can grow wings in a way you didn’t imagine when you started.”


Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.


Murder and mayhem take center stage at Masada

June 10, 2012

Hila Baggio of the Israeli Opera said the singers had to contend with desert sandstorms and being too far from the conductor to see his eyes.

Performing opera in the desert is so taxing, it’s small wonder that both sopranos who were to sing Carmen at Masada were unable to appear in the dress rehearsal last Wednesday. With just a few hours’ notice, understudy Na’ama Goldman, 27, had to take over for Anna Malavesi. And the following night, at the premiere, Goldman had to step in again, this time for the last two acts, after the desert aridity left Nancy Fabiola Herrera unable to continue. It was the first time an understudy had taken over from a lead soloist in a premiere of an Israeli Opera production. But Goldman even took her death by stabbing in stride.

Hila Baggio, who played Carmen’s friend Frasquita, in an interview before the dress rehearsal named some of the difficulties of performing in the desert.

“The atmosphere is amazing, [but] we had a desert storm with sand. It’s very dry. We’re drinking like crazy. That’s the only thing we can do,” she said.

“The acoustics are not good [and] we have to rely on the sound system,” she added. Each singer must be “wired,” with a microphone hidden in the hair.

Moreover, because for this outdoor production the stage is three times the size of an opera-house stage, the singers are too far from the orchestra to be able to see the conductor’s eyes, she said. That particular problem was evident when conductor Daniel Oren stopped the action in the second act, as the robbers were plotting, and called out to an eyepatch-wearing robber, “You with the one eye, you need to watch carefully with your other eye.”

And yet, the performance of Carmen was enjoyable, and Goldman rose to the occasion in the most remarkable way. The flamenco dancers from Spain clapped, tapped, and stamped, providing plenty of color and movement, and the children’s choir was excellent. Maria Agresta sang the role of Micaela with heart-melting sweetness.

And now for the Jewish connection: Georges Bizet’s wife was Genevieve Halévy, at whose popular salon in Paris members of high society could rub shoulders with writers and intellectuals. Later her salon hosted supporters of Dreyfus, including Marcel Proust. Her cousin Ludovic Halévy co-authored the libretto for Carmen.

Opera at Masada, near the Dead Sea, is now in its third year, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing all the productions, including Aida and Nabucco, so comparisons are inevitable. The very different style of those operas, in which everything is on a grander scale, seemed more suited to the monumental setting than Carmen. And whereas in the previous productions Masada was used as a foil to the stage set, this time the mountain simply melted into the set—a kind of Wild West with rocky hillocks.

And yet it was exciting to be there, along with the audience of 6,500. Opera at Masada is almost like a mirage, appearing suddenly in this UNESCO World Heritage Site in the desert and disappearing after two weeks, with its many tons of lighting and sound equipment, bleachers, dressing rooms, catering services, costumes, stage sets, and horses (there were 10 in this production).

Eitan Campbell, director of the Masada National Park, said it was not easy to decide to have the opera there. But he realized that a 20-acre space that had been primarily a garbage dump and a drilling site, in the buffer zone between the national park and its surroundings, could be transformed into a reception area with all the services needed by the audience and the cast.

“My primary aim was to maintain the landscape heritage,” he said. Proof that this has happened, he said, is that visitors return to Masada and say, “I was at the opera, but where is it?”

If they come back next year, they will find that the mirage has reappeared, this time in the form of Turandot.

Text and photo copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

When the Nile flowed at the foot of Masada

June 1, 2011

Kirstin Lewis has a luminous soprano voice and is personable both onstage and off.

A river of rippling blue light flowed diagonally across the stage.

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.