Posts Tagged ‘Jewish’

At Masada, even Tosca has a Jewish angle

June 2, 2015
Police chief Scarpia (r), Tosca, and her tortured lover, Cavaradossi, in Puccini's 'Tosca'--at Masada. (Yossi Zwecker)

Police chief Scarpia (r), Tosca, and her tortured lover, Cavaradossi, in Puccini’s ‘Tosca’–at Masada. (Yossi Zwecker)

In 1800, an opera singer in Rome is duped into believing she has been betrayed by her lover, a painter who is hiding a political prisoner on the run from the police. All come to a bad end.
That, in a nano-nutshell, is the story of Puccini’s Tosca, the highlight of the fifth Opera Festival at Masada, opening this Thursday.
At first glance there seems to be no Jewish angle to this opera—except, of course, the venue, the Israeli Opera performers, the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion, and conductor Daniel Oren, not to mention the huge production crew. But seek and ye shall find.
Start, for example, with the setting of Act Three: Hadrian’s tomb, better known today as the Castel Sant’Angelo. This round stone building was built in Rome as the mausoleum of the Roman emperor Hadrian (76–138 CE). Rabbinical sources, in contrast to some historians today, accuse Hadrian of having tried to destroy Judaism. In response to his actions, Simon Bar Kokhba led a massive four-year rebellion that ended in defeat in 135. In Jewish sources, Hadrian’s name is always accompanied by the expletive “may his bones be crushed.”
After Hadrian, his family, and other emperors were buried in the tomb, it had many uses. At the time in which the opera is set, it was a papal prison, undoubtedly a place of terror for the persecuted Jews of Rome.
The opera’s action takes place on a single day—June 14, 1800—during the Napoleonic wars. On this day, Napoleon’s army battled the Austrians in Marengo, in northwestern Italy. In Act One, news arrives that the Austrians have routed Napoleon’s forces. But in Act Two, a very different outcome is announced: The Austrians have been defeated.
What Napoleon’s victory meant for the Jews of Italy, and Jews throughout the European areas under his control, was a respite, albeit brief, from persecution.
Act One, which is set in the church of church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, ends with the singing of a Te Deum (a hymn of praise), celebrating the apparent Austrian victory. In the Masada production the singers include the Moran children’s chorus and the Israeli Opera chorus, dressed as nuns and priests. But anyone who looks closely can see that some of the “priests” are wearing T-shaped, “kosher” crosses.
“It’s a known ‘patent’ [trick] in Israel” to accommodate religiously observant performers, explained Michael Ajzenstadt, the artistic administrator of the Israeli Opera, at a dress rehearsal this week.
That final scene of Act One, in which several large crosses are displayed and black-clothed figures prostrate themselves on the stage, made at least one observer uncomfortable.
“It reminds me of the Inquisition,” she said.
“But [the scene] takes place in a church,” Ajzenstadt said, somewhat dismayed by the reaction. “Three years ago, in Jerusalem, we did Jérusalem of Verdi, which is about the Crusades, and there was no problem.”
That, of course, led to the question of the performance of Carmina Burana, the second fully staged work that is part of this year’s Opera Festival at Masada. This work, by German composer Carl Orff (1895–1982), was very popular in Nazi Germany, and his relations with the Nazi regime are the subject of debate.
Commenting on the fact that it is permitted to perform Orff’s works in Israel but not Wagner’s, Ajzenstadt said simply that “[for Israelis] Wagner—and it’s not logical—equals the Holocaust, even though he lived before the Holocaust and even though there were a lot of Nazi-era composers.”

And now for more Tosca-related Jewish tidbits:
• While Italy was undergoing political and cultural unification, the press initially portrayed Puccini as the ideal Italian composer and the ideal Italian man, but then, when his operas failed to support this view, attacked him as a polyglot, a traitor, a Jew.
• Puccini’s opera is based on a five-act play, La Tosca, by the French playwright Victorien Sardou. Sarah Bernhardt played the title role in the 1887 premiere and then toured the world in that role.
• The Canadian-Jewish baritone George London (born George Burnstein in 1920) sang the role of the sadistic police chief Scarpia opposite Maria Callas in 1956.
• Cantor and opera singer Jan Peerce, born Jacob Pinchas Perelmuth, sang the part of Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi, with the Metropolitan Opera of New York in the early 1940s.
• Australian bass Joshua Bloom sang the role of Angelotti, the escaped political prisoner, with the Los Angeles Opera in 2013.
• Dmitri Jurowski, 35, who comes from a family of Russian-Jewish musicians, conducts the Moscow City Symphony Orchestra and has led the Bolshoi Opera. He made his US podium debut in Chicago, on January 14 this year, with Tosca.
• The German-Jewish novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger, author of the 1925 novel Jud Süß (Jew Suss, published in English translation as Power) had this to say about the Nazi film industry’s adaptation of it: “By adding a touch of Tosca you have transformed my novel, Power, into a vile anti-Semitic movie à la Streicher and his Sturmer.” Feuchtwanger was referring to a scene in which Dorothea comes to Suss to plead for her husband’s life, just as Tosca comes to police chief Scarpia, only to hear his cries as he is tortured.
• The following item was sent out by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on March 29, 1937: “Principals of the Jewish School of Music in Pinsk face court proceedings because students sang in Yiddish the first act of Puccini’s opera ‘Tosca’ which takes place in a Catholic convent, according to a press announcement.
“Police halted the performance after the first act, according to the reports. The principals are accused of having ‘outraged Christian feelings and profaned religion.’ ”
• John Bell’s production of Tosca at the Sydney Opera House in January 2015 sets the events in 1943 Nazi-occupied Rome. A shepherd boy wears a yellow star, and in the final prison scene the audience realizes that the group of people sleeping outdoors are Jews in transit to an extermination camp. When this production opened a month earlier in Melbourne, chorister Sitiveni Talei was visibly shaken by having to give the Nazi salute. He is the son of a Jewish mother and a Fijian father and learned he was Jewish only at the age of 16.

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

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A Jewish ghost in Santa Fe

October 22, 2010

The entwined initials of Abraham Staab appear over the entrance to his home, part of La Posada de Santa Fe Resort and Spa.

At first glance, La Posada de Santa Fe, a luxurious resort and spa in the center of New Mexico’s capital, looks like a pueblo-style inn. But just visible above its adobe outer walls is a 19th century mansion built in French Second Empire style.

Walk in and you will see the initials A.S. entwined over the entrance to the Staab house. The Staabs were among Santa Fe’s social and commercial elite in the days when European Jews were treated as second-class citizens but their counterparts in the American West could become judges, mayors, and governors.

When German-born Abraham Staab rode into Santa Fe in 1856 he was only 17 years old. He worked for a year for the Spiegelberg Brothers, among the first pioneers in the town, and then went into business with his brother Zadok. Theirs became the largest wholesale trading and merchandising establishment in the entire Southwest, and they were major supply contractors for the U.S. Army during the Civil War. They also acted as bankers before there were banks in the area and they invested in real estate.

In 1865, Staab returned to Germany to marry Julia Schuster and promised he would build her a grand European home in Santa Fe. He was true to his word, and in 1882 he built a three-story brick home, one of the first brick structures in town, on East Palace Avenue, the most fashionable part of Santa Fe. The materials and the furnishings were all imported and included French antiques and Italian paintings. The house originally had a third-story ballroom with a mansard roof, but it was destroyed by fire at the beginning of the 20th century.

Staab became involved in political life. He was the first president of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce and he was part of the Santa Fe Ring, a group of powerful attorneys and land speculators. He is credited with helping to keep Santa Fe as the state capital.

His wife was a gracious hostess, and among the couples’ friends was Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. Staab even contributed toward the construction of Lamy’s Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, a short walk from the Staab home.

There is nothing on the Staab family tomb in Santa Fe’s historic Fairview Cemetery, which the Staabs helped maintain, to indicate that they were Jewish (and such is the case with the graves of many of the German-Jewish pioneers in New Mexico). But the Staabs did not hide their religion. A mezuzah is clearly visible on the doorpost of one of the main rooms in the house.

Julia Staab is said to have suffered from bouts of depression, and she is also said to have never recovered from the death of one of her children in infancy and subsequent failed pregnancies. She died and was laid to rest in 1896, when she was only 52.

But there are those who say her spirit is uneasy, and several La Posada employees have testified that they have seen her ghost or felt her presence. Some say she is troubled by the changes to her home. Others say she is merely keeping watch over the house, making sure that the guests are comfortable. Surely many of them would be surprised to learn that a Jewish spirit is attending to their needs.
Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

Santa Fe mikveh: A New Mexican dip

September 27, 2010

According to Genesis, four rivers flow from the Garden of Eden; symbolically, they converge in the mikveh.

A new kind of pool in Santa Fe offers a dip in paradise. It is a mikveh, a ritual immersion pool to be used by Jewish women. Housed in a new adobe structure, it is on the property of Rabbi Berel Levertov.
Jewish women use a mikveh mainly to achieve ritual purity after menstruation or childbirth. Brides immerse themselves on the eve of their wedding. And immersion in a mikveh is part of the procedure of conversion to Judaism. In some Jewish communities, women use the mikveh to cleanse themselves spiritually, often at the beginning of a Jewish month.
But this mikveh is more than just a pool. The domed brick ceiling has a skylight that fills the room with natural light. And the design on the walls, by local stone-mosaic artist Joshua Kalkstein and titled “Waters of Eden,” consists of 1,400 stones of various natural colors. They depict the four rivers that, according to Genesis, flowed from the Garden of Eden. Symbolically, they flow into the mikveh.
Kalkstein also incorporated the names of important women in the Bible, including Sarah, Rebecca and Esther. The letters of the names have mystical significance, Levertov said, and through them “women bring the divine energy into the world.”
Rain water flows from the domed roof into a cistern where it is mixed with a certain proportion of tap water to meet the ritual requirements. During last week’s heavy rain the cistern filled up, the rabbi said.
The mikveh is not a bath. Before immersing herself, a woman must cleanse herself thoroughly, and for this there is a separate room with what the rabbi calls a New Mexico shower (squirting water from several directions) and a large tub into which water flows as from a waterfall.
Women in search of the cleansing waters of the mikveh will now find that the waters of Eden await them.
Photo and text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. Neither the photo nor the text may be used by anyone without the express permission of Esther Hecht.