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Almost 2,000 years ago, the hallowed mountain of Masada was the site of the last stand of the Jews against the Romans, where about 1,000 fighters committed mass suicide rather than surrendering. This event is indelibly ingrained into the psyche of every Israeli.
Over the past two years, Masada has served as a backdrop to the Israel Opera productions of Nabucco and Aida. This year it was Bizet's Carmen. There were six performances including one dress rehearsal and a total of 50,000 people attended the production. Of these, 3,500 opera lovers came from overseas, specifically to attend the performances and the opening night was projected live at several sites all over Israel. 
Israel Opera's productions at Masada represent the country's largest single cultural enterprise. The cost of this year's production was 30 million shekels (approximately $8.5 million) and ticket prices ranged from 350 to 1300 shekel.
The sheer logistics of this complex enterprise are mind-boggling. The work force comprised over 2,500 people. The huge cast of 400 performers included singers, flamenco dancers from Spain and adult and children's choirs. Because of the harsh and arid desert conditions, there were two alternating casts. Many of the principal roles were taken by major international singers but there were also prominent Israeli artists amongst the distinguished roster. 
An amphitheatre seating 7,500 people together with a 3,500-square-meter stage is specially constructed for the event. It takes six months of hard work to organize all the logistics for this undertaking. After the performances, everything is dismantled to maintain an eco-friendly environment of Masada, which is a World Heritage Site. 
The operatic extravaganza was directed by Giancarlo del Monaco Zuckerman and William Orlandi designed the sets which exploited the massive stage to the maximum. The incomparable setting with the backdrop of Masada is pure magic. In Act I, set in a square in Seville, the background behind the main protagonists was filled with couples walking arm in arm, and an endless parade of horses with riders and donkeys hauling ploughs and other farm implements. For a purist, this may represent overkill and the busy staging did to some extent detract from the main events unfolding center stage. 
The staging of the tavern scene in Act 2 was impressive and the lighted braziers casting shadows gave a very authentic touch. Again it was very busy with revellers and smugglers. However in the intimate contact of Carmen and Don José, the giant stage was empty except for these two protagonists. In view of all the equestrian activity noted in Act 1, it was somewhat surprising that the bull fighter, Escamillo, made his entrance and exit on the shoulders of two members of his party. 
Act 3 was also innovatively staged and featured a train together with rail tracks. The smugglers unloaded their contraband from the train. The first part of the final Act 4 is set outside the bullring in Seville and contained the expected large crowd of revellers and onlookers witnessing the dramatic parade of the matador's colorful entourage which even included a carriage drawn by horses.  
However the final scene of Act 4, when Carmen is confronted by Don José, did raise some questions about the director's intent. Bizet's instructions call for the stage to be empty, all the spectators having entered the bullring for the matador's encounter with the bull. Here several hundred seated and standing spectators witnessed Carmen's gruesome and brutal stabbing.  
Full marks go to choreographer Charlos Vilan, who brilliantly succeeded in exploiting the vast stage to the maximum with Spanish Flamenco dancers and child dancers and actors who performed at every conceivable opportunity, including the overture and the well-known introduction to Act 3.  
The young Israeli mezzo soprano, Naama Goldman, a member of the Israeli Opera's Opera Studio and the recipient of an award from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, was the scheduled understudy for this production. She took over the challenging title role of Carmen with four hours notice, when the scheduled mezzo called in sick. Not an easy task for a young singer in front of 7500 spectators. 
naama goldman.JPG
Nevertheless Goldman rose to the occasion and acted and played the part with aplomb. With her good looks, flowing black hair and coquettish demeanour she proved herself to be a very authentic and believable Carmen. Her amplified voice projected well although there were some minor intonation problems with the lower registers. This was by all accounts a most auspicious debut for the young singer, who is destined for a great future. Soprano Brigitta Kele, in the role of Micaëla also made a good impression especially in the scene when she pleaded with Don José to return to see his dying mother.
Despite the hostile elements including wind and sand, and the relatively unprotected stage, from where I was sitting, the sound engineers appear to have done a magnificent job and orchestra and soloists could be clearly heard. Problems still remain with the vocal amplification of the choir. Daniel Oren who conducted the previous productions successfully brought out all the nuances of Bizet's score and was most sympathetic to his singers. 
The Israel Opera deserve heartiest accolades for bringing off so successfully this ambitious production. Puccini's Turandot is scheduled for next year. 
Fig 1: The Israel Opera production of Carmen. Photo credit: Yossi Zwecker
Fig 2: Israeli mezzo-soprano Naama Goldman flanked by Don José (Gustavo Porta) and Micaëla (Brigitta Kele) after her very successful debut at Israel Opera's production of Carmen. Photo credit: Irving Spitz

About Me

Dr. Irving Spitz writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel. Some of his articles, essays and reviews can be seen at www.irvingspitz.com. Additional photographs can be seen at www.pbase.com/irvspitz. Dr Spitz holds MD, PhD and DSc degrees from the Witwatersrand University in...Read More...Read More

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