Posts Tagged ‘Israeli Opera’

Opera at Masada: This Year It’s a Double-Header

February 4, 2015
The underwater scene from Carmina Burana to be staged at Masada in June. (Photo courtesy of the Israeli Opera)

The underwater scene from Carmina Burana to be staged at Masada in June. (Photo courtesy of the Israeli Opera)

For the first time in its five-year history, the Opera Festival at Masada will include two fully staged works: Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The performance schedule, in the first two weeks of June, will enable audiences to attend performances of both works in a single weekend. An added attraction will be sunset tours on Masada before the performances. And the pre-performance reception area will be designed to look like the streets of Rome, complete with a fountain.
Tosca and Carmina Burana are among the most popular operatic works, according to Michael Ajzenstadt, the Israeli Opera’s artistic director. Set in Rome, “Tosca includes a murder, an execution, and a suicide,” Ajzenstadt said Tuesday at a launch of the festival at the Israeli Opera House in Tel Aviv.
“One of the heroes is a chief of police who wants sexual favors in exchange for changing a verdict,” he added, alluding to Israel’s police force, which has been wracked by recurrent sexual-harassment scandals. “Carmina Burana, written originally as a staged work, celebrates life, love, nature, and rebirth, and will be fully staged at Masada,” he said.
This work is actually not an opera, because it doesn’t have a story, director Michal Znaniecki said in a videotaped interview. His challenge as the director was to create a story that would tie together the discrete parts in which the lyrics are bawdy and irreverent medieval poems. The solution was a story of growing up, death, conflict, wars, “all of this in spectacular moments like in Spielberg movies”—including an underwater scene, Znaniecki said.
What he did not mention is that performances of Carmina Burana in Israel have had a whiff of controversy about them, because the work, composed in Germany by Carl Orff in 1935 and 1936, was embraced by the Nazis. Moreover, there are conflicting claims regarding Orff’s relationship with the Nazi regime.
Tosca will be conducted by Daniel Oren, and Carmina Burana by James Judd.
Producing one operatic work at Masada is a gargantuan undertaking that requires building a stage three times the size of a regular opera stage, trucking in dozens of tons of equipment, and constructing a backstage opera “city” to house the hundreds of performers and extras.
“This year it is even more complicated because of the alternating productions,” said Hanna Munitz, general director of the Israeli Opera and the prime mover behind the festival.
On the other hand, some things have become easier, she said, thanks to advances in technology. Masada is the backdrop to performances, and whereas for the performance of Aïda in 2011 expert rappellers had to be recruited to attach lights to the sheer face of the mountain, now the lighting effects can be projected onto the mountain face.
The opera festival will also have extensions in Jerusalem—Donizetti’s operatic comedy L’elisir d’amore (The elixir of love)—and in Acco.
Eshet Tours and Amiel Tours are handling packages for overseas tourists.

Photo courtesy of the Israeli Opera. Text copyright 2015 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.


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.

Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’: a midsummer delight in Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park

July 20, 2011

A full moon was rising over Tel Aviv. In the Ganei Yehoshua amusement park people were screaming with the thrill and the terror of a large ferris wheel and a bungee-like ride that dropped them in a cage that bounced up only to drop and bounce again.

Across the road, in Hayarkon Park, what seemed to be a party or a wedding reception was getting under way with utsa-utsa music. And next to that a seemingly endless number of people defied gravity by streaming uphill and then flowing down toward the enormous stage for the annual Opera in the Park; this year’s offering was Mozart’s Magic Flute, performed by the Israeli Opera. Tel Aviv was doing what it does best: enjoying life’s gifts in every way possible.

While the audience waited for the opera to begin, giant screens on either side of the stage offered up a cultural feast in miniature: a preview of dance, music, and theater performances scheduled for the “city that never stops.”

And as he does every year, Mayor Ron Huldai introduced the performance. Then—displaying a talent he has had since childhood—he pulled out a recorder and played a theme from the opera.

What followed were two magical hours of gorgeous melodies and ravishing stage sets. The Magic Flute is in the form of a singspiel, including spoken and sung dialogue. Much of the dialogue was cut in this performance, but it seemed that no one missed it. After all, the music and the spectacle are what set one’s heart on fire.

Bambi Friedman’s sets, using video to the hilt, were outstanding. In the opening scene in a children’s room, a TV screen showed animated penguins dancing to the overture; later, “real” penguins danced on the stage. And when the Queen of the Night appeared atop a giant bat with terrifying red eyes, a host of video bats with similarly scary eyes flapped their way across the stage. But the most beautiful use of video was a scene with time-lapse photography, in which winter-bare trees blossomed and then gradually lost their leaves again.

Papageno, the sly bird-catcher, was played as a comic figure by tenor Guy Mannheim with great charm; at one point he walked offstage into the audience to show off his panpipes. The Queen of the Night is a role notorious for its difficulty, requiring the soprano to reach the very high F6 repeatedly. The soprano (unfortunately there were no programs at this free performance and I did not catch her name), was suitably dramatic, breezing through those impossibly high nights with aplomb. And the three child-sprites who guide the prince Tamino through his many trials were surprisingly good.

The opera is said to be an allegory in which enlightened absolutism is pitched against obscurantism; that is, it is an ode to reason and humanism. But the message that rang out clearest for me, from the very beginning when Tamino and Papageno are provided with a magic flute and bells to protect them, is that music (especially Mozart’s) is the best protection against evils of the spirit.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text 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.