An eponymous opera

Verdi’s ‘Jerusalem’ will finally be performed – at the closing of the five-day Opera Festival – in its namesake city.

Verdi outdoors 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Verdi outdoors 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
They say that some things, like Irish-brewed Guinness, don’t travel well. Verdi’s Jerusalem opera can probably be included in that category, considering it took it more than 150 years to make it to the city after which it was named. The closing event of the Jerusalem section of the Opera Festival (June 2-6) will be a performance of the piece in the most fitting of settings, the Sultan’s Pool, at the foot of the Old City’s walls.
“Yes, it did take a long time to make it to Jerusalem,” says David Stern, who will conduct the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Transylvania State Philharmonic Orchestra for the occasion. “It’s actually a great piece. You know, early Verdi can go both ways – there are some great moments in early Verdi, and there are some lesser great moments.”
In fact, the Jerusalem we will see and hear on June 6, which also takes place under the aegis of this year’s Israel Festival, is not the original version of the work. “I lombardi [the original 1843 Verdi work] is not an unproblematic opera. It is one of the best examples of his early period,” continues Stern. “He rewrote it 10 years later and put it into French, and it changes quite a lot. It changes in structure and in sound, and then he tightened it so that it becomes more compact as an opera. It really is a piece worthy of any theater or opera house.”
Of course, neither of the above provides the physical setting for the Jerusalem Opera Festival date, and Stern is delighted with the opportunity to perform the piece at such a historically and culturally evocative venue. “To do this work exactly at the point where the opera [story line] takes place is something special,” he says.
Jerusalem is a four-part opera written by Verdi and set to a French libretto by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz, which was partly translated and adapted from Verdi’s original 1843 Italian opera, I lombardi alla prima crociata. It was Verdi’s first commission from the Opéra de Paris and premiered there in 1847. There are significant changes in the location and action of the French version, especially given the need to locate them in a French context.
The opera tells the story of a troubled romantic liaison set against the backdrop of the First Crusade to this part of the world from France. There are all sorts of political shenanigans and a botched murder, and the Christians eventually secure victory and, ultimately, all is well with the young couple.
The Gallic form of the opera demands a different approach to the score from the more prevalent Italian format. “It changes the sound so much, and it is understandable why the performance of this work has been so long in coming. It affects the way the singers sing it. A lot of the things we take for granted in Italian are simply based on the fact that it is Italian. You cannot impose that freedom, or the typical sounds you hear in Italian opera, on French music. The way you do the accents, the way you treat the rhythms changes a lot, and it favors the long line rather than the bravura of the moment. In a sense, it’s almost like an amalgam of French and Italian opera.”
Stern says that besides this reading of Jerusalem, Verdi’s French work is now enjoying something of a renaissance. “The other operas Verdi did in French are now getting replayed and getting the attention they deserve. I like this version of Jerusalem very much.”
And if the musical fare were not sufficient to keep the audience riveted, much has been invested in the visual aesthetics, with the costumes a wonder to behold and 4D lighting effects on board too.
While Jerusalem will provide the closing act to the festival, the overture will take the form of an operatic gala concert, also at the Sultan’s Pool, on June 2. The celebrated Arena di Verona orchestra and singers from Italy will perform a program of arias and duets from operas by Verdi and Puccini, including such favorites as La Traviata, Rigoletto, Madam Butterfly and La Boheme.
However, there is much more to the Jerusalem Opera Festival of a less operatic nature. On June 3 there is a plethora of chamber music to be had at some select locations around the city. “The idea behind the program is to bring people from all over the country, and from abroad, to special places that are particularly evocative of Jerusalem,” explains Israeli Opera artistic administrator Michael Ajzenstadt. “So we went for the Sultan’s Pool but also for the really special churches, including some that aren’t so well known. “We were very pleased to cooperate with the Jerusalem Municipality on this.”
The chamber music on offer covers expansive artistic ground. “We wanted to offer the public a bit of something from everything,” Ajzenstadt explains. The public can mix and match items from the chamber music program, which runs through the day. The first concert, featuring Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 3-6, starts at 10 a.m. – and repeated at 11:30 a.m. – with David Shemer wielding the baton over the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra at the St. Vincent de Paul monastery in Mamilla.
There are a couple of 11 a.m. slots, with The Art of the Concerto program with works by Handel, Bach, Vivaldi and Corelli performed by the Israel Camerata Orchestra, conducted by Avner Biron, at St. Andrew’s Church near the German Colony. Meanwhile, at the same time on the Mount of Olives, the Hear My Prayer concert at the Augusta Victoria Church incorporates pieces by Mendelssohn, English composer Andrew Carter, Canadian composer Imant Raminsh and Danish composer Anders Poulsen. Both programs will be repeated at 1 p.m.
If you catch either of the above first concerts, you’ll have plenty of time to get to the Lutheran Church in the Old City for the 1 p.m. (repeated at 4 p.m.) performance of Missa Criolla and a selection of other South American liturgical works or a concert of the Bach-Gounod version of “Ave Maria” at the Dormition Abbey (also repeated at 4 p.m.).
“The program is very varied,” says Ajzenstadt. “There are orchestral concerts and choral concerts, and there are chamber concerts with very non-routine programs. We also endeavored to choose the churches and other spaces that suited the works the best.”
All the Friday concerts will end before the start of Shabbat.
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