Posts Tagged ‘opera at Masada’

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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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.

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.