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Dr. Irving Spitz: June 2011 Archives

June 2011 Archives

Opera on a Very Grand Scale ó Verdi's Aida at Masada

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The main operatic extravaganza of the highly successful Masada-Dead Sea Opera Festival organized by the Israel Opera was the performance of Verdiís Aida. This took place in a specially constructed venue at the foot of the hallowed mountain fortress of Masada which is in the Judean Desert adjacent to the Dead Sea. Although there is a tiny landing strip for small planes, Masada is basically only accessible by road. It is situated over 150 km from the Israel Operaís home base in Tel Aviv. Not unexpectedly, this enterprise represented a tremendous logistical undertaking.

Thousands of tons of equipment both locally and from abroad were transported by 120 trucks overland. The complex lighting involved 10 kilometers of electrical cables. There were facilities for some 230 buses to transport eager listeners to and from every performance. Over 2500 people were involved in the preparation of this production. A total of 45,000 opera fans attended the six performances, each fully sold out. Some 10 percent were foreigners who came especially to Israel to see the opera.

 This Aida represented a co-production with Les Choregies d'Orange, France, and will be staged later this year in Orangeís Roman Theater. This was a happening on a gigantic scale. French designer Emmanuelle Favreís most attractive sets included a massive sphinx statue center stage. Soldiers, officials, priests, dancers and others emerged from a ceremonial opening door in the statue. The sides of the huge stage were flanked with smaller sphinxes, two on each side. An obelisk appeared in the triumphant scene of Act 2. In the Nile scene, half the stage was shimmering in lights to reflect flowing water. This staging was both dramatic and effective but did not detract from the spectacular and unique locale with Masada in the background.

Israeli light designer Avi Yona Bueno also utilized this backdrop most effectively and at appropriate moments, the mountain was lit up. Indeed, the lighting effects were particularly brilliant and dramatic. As in last yearís production of Nabucco, they were the high point of this glitzy production and Avi Yona Bueno was the real star. Subtitles were clearly displayed on five screens in Hebrew and English and were visible to all. For those not acquainted with the details of the plot, the essential details were also displayed on these screens.

Israeli citizens from the periphery of the country were invited to the final dress rehearsal. Making opera available to those unaccustomed to this art form and who could never afford it represents a nice gesture. The press was also invited to this specific performance. This has drawbacks since it is unfair to criticize a production while still in rehearsal. The scene in Act 2 with the return of the victorious Egyptian army parading their Ethiopian captors is the dramatic high point in this opera. At the dress rehearsal, the dancers from the Israeli town of Arad and the Bedouin town of Rahat, as well as the soldiers and captives were not coordinated and the choreographic details had not been well worked out. The dancers were requested to remain behind after the performance for further practice. This clearly paid off and several people told me that this scene was significantly improved by opening night.

At the beginning of the Nile scene in Act 3, Aida was transported to her clandestine meeting with Radames on the back of a camel. Other camels could be seen in the distant background. Camels are appropriate in the desert and could logically be part of the scene with the victorious Egyptian army. Indeed, animals including horses and on rare occasions, elephants, are often part and parcel of it. In this production, the camels seemed a little out of place and introduced an element of kitsch. This can also be said of the surprise fireworks at the end of the triumphant scene, which also did not add much to the performance.

 The acoustical amplification of the voices was remarkable considering that the venue is unprotected from the wind. However the engineers have yet to solve the issue of sound projection of the orchestra and choir. The sound was often muffled and distorted especially when there were gusts of wind.

Most impressive of the principal singers was the Amneris of American mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti. She gave a riveting and dramatic portrayal and stole the show. American soprano, Kristine Lewis's Aida started a little tentatively and her voice was a little harsh in Ritorna vincitor (Return a conqueror). Italian tenor Marco Bertiís Radames was adequate and he managed to pull off the treacherous high B flat in his formidable opening aria, Celeste Aida (Heavenly Aida). The roles of the Ethiopian Amonasro and the high priest were sung competently and effectively by Italian baritone Alberto Gazale and Georgian bass Paata Burchuladze respectively. Both acquitted themselves admirably. Israeli conductor Daniel Oren held the Israel Opera Orchestra from Rishon LeZion in precise control with his sweeping gestures.

It appears that the Israel Opera at Masada is becoming an annual event and a DVD of the performance will be released shortly. Carmen is scheduled next year. With almost 5,000 foreign visitors attending, there is no doubt that the current Aida and last yearís Nabucco have put the Israel Opera firmly on the international operatic firmament. It has cemented the status of this relatively new company, directed by the charismatic Hanna Munitz, as a force to be reckoned with.


DSC_0071.JPGFigure. Staging of Verdiís Opera Aida at Masada (photo credit IS).
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