They say that “all roads lead to Rome,” but this road followed a unique route. Accompanied by the steadily rising full June moon, I had the pleasure barely disguised as business of being part of a press delegation making its way from Jerusalem to Masada this week for the general rehearsal of Tosca.
It is the fifth time the Israeli Opera has staged a production at what Maestro Daniel Oren calls “This magic mountain.” On our way, we pass the red and pink beauty of desert rocks, the extraordinary blue hue of the Dead Sea, plenty of goats, a herd of wild camels, and several camels waiting for tourists to have their picture taken while riding them.
The closer we get, the more relaxed we all become.
The lowest spot in the world is fast becoming an elevated spot on the cultural map – an outdoor theater at the foot of Masada that can seat 6,000, created from scratch once a year, under the strict supervision of the Nature and Parks Authority to limit environmental damage.
Close to the entrance are road signs alerting drivers to the gazelles.
As we disembark from the bus, we pass a stone sign welcoming us to Nature’s Cultural Hall and enter a different world, or a different time and place: An Italian-themed openair area where the audience can sip a glass of wine, for a price, and have a bite to eat before the performance.
The Israeli Opera is marking its 30th anniversary and the Opera Festival at Masada is celebrating the milestone with performances of both Puccini’s ever popular Tosca and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, notes Israeli Opera general director Hanna Munitz.
At the end of the month, the opera festival will move to Jerusalem, where Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore is scheduled to be staged at Sultan’s Pool, and in September to Acre – a UNESCO World Heritage Site, like Masada – will see a production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.
Munitz and officials from the Tourism Ministry and the Tamar Regional Council note that part of their investment is aimed at making people think of Israel as a cultural tourism destination.
Last summer’s war took a toll on the tourism industry in general, and even fanatic opera lovers were understandably wary of booking while missiles were falling on the country, even if they were not near Masada and the Dead Sea. But the figures are climbing back up and some 3,000 tourists are flying in especially for the opera festival at Masada, a welcome boost to the tourism industry in Jerusalem, the Dead Sea region and hotels in Arad, according to Pini Shani, deputy director marketing administration and director overseas department in the Tourism Ministry.
The success of the event is a dream come true for Munitz, a typical Israeli dream – thinking big, with more than a touch of chutzpah and daring.
This is a star-studded event. It is the second time that Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassileva is performing at Masada and she sings its praises as being “really mystical.”
Despite the difficulties of performing outdoors in the dry desert air, where the evening breeze can be dusty, she put on a stellar performance.
She sparkles alongside an international cast that includes Italian Carlo Striuli, Argentinean Gustavo Porta, American Scott Hendricks and Russian Sergei Murzaev.
The local singers include Vladimir Braun, Joseph Aridan, Oded Reich and Noah Briger; the Moran Children’s Choir, and the Israeli Opera Chorus conducted by Eitan Schmeisser, very publicly called “Gingy” by Maestro Oren at several points in the dress rehearsal.
In the program, director Nicolas Joel describes Tosca as “a fascinating psychological thriller” set at a very specific point in the Napoleonic wars. “And into this very specific period in history, Puccini injects three characters who are swept in a roller-coaster ride of love, lust, hate and revenge.”
Michael Ajzenstadt, artistic administrator of the Israeli Opera, says: “The average Puccini heroine is a strong woman who has very clear ideas of love and life. These women love with all their hearts.
They are courageous women who make steadfast decisions and unfortunately pay for these decisions with their lives.”
The majestic mountain fortress is stunning under the clear desert sky as Tosca sings to the love of her life: “It is the time of the full moon, when the heart is drunk with the nightly fragrance of the flowers. Are you not happy?” And, even though I know their lives will have tragically ended by the end of Act III, I am happy.
Opera is an acquired taste. A journalist sitting near me quips that “it’s like an Egyptian movie, only in Italian.”
You don’t attend an opera performance for the plot. You have to allow yourself to be swept up in the passions and the music.
THERE IS, of course, no small irony in turning the foot of Masada, of all places, into a replica of Rome, even if Tosca is set in June 1800, during the Napoleonic wars in a divided Italy, while Jewish rebels famously clashed with the ancient Romans at this site 2,000 years ago.
The history of Masada is closely connected to that of the Jews who chose death over slavery (making it the perfect location in the past for moving productions of both Nabucco and Aida). Even those who today mock the story as recorded by Josephus Flavius are not immune to the power of the cliff top where Herod built a splendid palace whose ruins continue to fascinate visitors from near and far.
Before the start of the performance, Oren asks the audience to “stand for ‘Hatikva,’ the national anthem.” It’s not every night you get a chance to sing along with the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion, let alone at a place where the meaning of the words is so pertinent and poignant.
Before the final act commences, the audience is warned that the sound of gunshots will be heard.
Nonetheless, the blasts, magnified in the desert, make us jump from our comfortable seats. Ditto the fireworks which are part of the spectacle.
I wonder if the foreign tourists are as jumpy as the Israelis, who have repeatedly been through real wars.
As I return home in the early hours of the morning I catch up with the news headlines that I have been so happily avoiding all night. The insidious spread of the BDS movement is among the bad news. Britain’s National Union of Students on Tuesday passed a motion to boycott Israel. I wonder how many of them could find Israel on a map before they try to erase it, and if they understand the threats this region is facing – not just Israel, but also those bordering countries with which it has peace treaties, Jordan and Egypt. For yes, we are capable of making peace when the partners are also willing.
Not for the first time, I think how sad it is that instead of encouraging cultural exchange and joint tourism and economic projects to benefit the whole region, there are so many people who in the ostensible name of peace try to destroy coexistence and further distance us.
I arrived home from my night at the opera in the early hours of June 3, Unity Day, a new initiative launched by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, the Gesher organization aimed at healing rifts in society, and the families of the three Jewish youths kidnapped and murdered last year. The solidarity created as we prayed in vain for the safe return of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah served us well as 4,000 or so rockets were launched on Israel during the 50 days of Operation Protective Edge.
Would that all Israel’s tragedies take place only on stage and end with the cast bouncing back for a standing ovation.
On the night of June 3, as Unity Day drew to a close, two rockets were fired from Gaza at southern Israel. I thought it might be Hamas celebrating the BDS victories, but a Salafist group later claimed credit saying it was in response to Hamas killing one of its members. Real life can be more twisted than the plot of a tragic opera.
The country is celebrating festivals including Hebrew Book Week, the Sderot Film Festival, the Israel Festival and the Jerusalem Light Festival while the IDF Home Command is carrying out a huge drill simulating conflict on multiple fronts. It’s our extraordinary reality, always trying to enjoy life, never daring to forget.
Generations of bar-mitzva boys, from Israel and the Diaspora, have ascended Masada to connect to the history of the site and the Jewish People on their special day; members of youth movements and IDF soldiers stand on the cliff top and pledge that “Masada will never fall again.”
Masada indeed stands strong, and yet it is undeniably moving.