Mozart at the tower

The Jerusalem Opera is bringing ‘Don Giovanni’ to the picturesque Old City setting.

Actor 521 (photo credit: Elad Zagman)
Actor 521
(photo credit: Elad Zagman)

When it comes to intrigue, romantic interest, heightened emotions, skulduggery and daredevil deeds, there are few operas that outdo Don Giovanni. Mozart’s thrilling masterpiece is the latest contribution by the burgeoning Jerusalem Opera outfit, which will be performing it outdoors next week at the Tower of David in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Gabriele Ribis, the Italian baritone who plays the eponymous character and is also directing the production, is clearly enthused by the subject matter – particularly the lead character.
“He has an influence on everybody and everything,” says the 29-year-old singer. “He... changes the life of everybody. After the attempted rape by Don Giovanni, life changes completely.”
It is that act by the incorrigibly licentious Don Giovanni that sets in motion all manner of dramatic development, seasoned with comic segments. Through the two acts, this Don Juan tries his luck with several ladies, while his initial victim, Donna Anna, invests much effort in tracking down her assailant so her betrothed can take him to task. Compounding Anna’s emotional turmoil is that Don Giovanni killed her father after the latter came to his daughter’s rescue.
“This is such a basic theme, like Don Quixote,” notes the director. “In that story there is one of the main characters in the history of humanity. This is a universal theme.”
Placing the operatic form in its historical and social context, Ribis notes that “going to the opera was a way to pass time. People would go to the opera and listen to the stories. Opera was also a social matter. People went to drink and eat, to have sex – you had boxes with two compartments: one to watch the opera, and the back part to do other things,” he adds with a chuckle. “Of course, that was for people with money.”
The Jerusalem shows will not be offering such facilities, but the production makes full use of the outdoor venue’s location. Lighting designer Yogi Mazuz will illuminate the historic surroundings, and enhancing the visual spectacle will be video art designed by Italian video artist and photographer Gianmarco D’Agostino. For those who find themselves in less-than-ideal viewing positions, D’Agostino’s efforts should help to compensate, as he will have five cameras around the citadel that will relay real-time images to screens dotted around the site.
In addition to Ribis’s velvety baritone vocals, the opera will feature the polished skills of sopranos Olga Senderskaya, Efrat Raz and Shaked Bar, and their male counterparts, baritones Yaakov Strizhak and Netanel Zalevsky and tenor Oshri Segev. Vocal support will come from the singers of the Jerusalem Opera, with the Jerusalem Opera Orchestra providing the instrumental underpinning, and Omer Arieli on the conductor’s podium.
Ribis observes that social considerations were a central element of Mozart’s operatic oeuvre in general, and feels that directors would do well to keep that factor in mind when addressing Don Giovanni, no matter when they set the piece.
“When you do, for instance, modern settings of the opera, I think you should never forget this [social aspect]. These days, the social differences are down more to money than social classes, but of course, it doesn’t mean that someone who has money is better than a poor person.”
Of course, some believe that while people today see opera as a part of highbrow culture, a couple of centuries ago it was actually the pop music of its day. Ribis does not entirely subscribe to that idea.
“Opera was the elite music in Mozart’s time. You had less wealthy people going to the theater, but that was in different circumstances. In Prague, for example, Mozart remembers how he heard people in the street whistling his melodies, and he was proud of that. That was mostly because Prague was a very different city from Vienna, where the most important theater was the Karnt Theater, so basically [as a composer], if your opera was going to be performed there, you were writing music for the emperor. That’s why an opera like Don Giovanni had such success.”
THE WORK has continued to pack in the crowds since it was unveiled to the public at the Teatro di Praga on October 29, 1787. To this day, it is one of the world’s most performed operas.
Ribis, naturally, would like to keep the genre as popular as possible, but believes more needs to be done to make productions like the upcoming Tower of David performances accessible to the public.
“In my opinion, it is important that opera starts to come out of theaters,” he states. “That’s why I was one of those who proposed to perform [Don Giovanni] not in a theater, but at the Tower of David. That’s because I think opera has something to do with beauty, so putting the opera together with a beautiful place makes two beauties together.”
But surely there are some aesthetically pleasing indoor venues, too? “The old ones, yes, but not the modern ones,” he says. “With the new ones, we are sometimes hostages of architects with strange ideas. We now have a new theater in Florence [that] really surprised me: It looks like a railway station. It’s very strange.”
The Italian baritone feels that there can be a healthy reciprocal relationship between the physical aesthetics of an opera venue and the vocal and instrumental sounds produced there. “I think that whenever you have interesting places, music is a way of allowing you to enjoy the place even more. It adds something.”
Indeed, some argue that art feeds off life and nature, and as such, by confining a work of art to the interior of a man-made structure, one would be severing the umbilical cord between the artistic creation and its life source. The director agrees, adding that the venue of his upcoming operatic production offers more than just the alfresco element.
“First of all, with the Tower of David, you don’t need scenery, because you have natural scenery. Second, and this is one of the strengths of the opera, you can build a production exactly and only for that particular place.”
Returning briefly to the subject of pop music, Ribis feels that opera offers assets that the public cannot get from more massappeal sectors of the music market.
“What opera gives that pop music and movies generally cannot is that every single performance is a unique experience,” he says. “If you go to the same opera two days later, it will be different. Thank God. That’s why I like theater and opera so much, and it is also a different experience each time for us, the performers, because you feel different every time. And if it is different for the performers, it is also different for the audience.”
As a staunch supporter of putting on the Mozart opera outdoors, he also expects the show to connect with the ebb and flow of the city around it. “I will try to put Don Giovanni into the reality of Jerusalem. I am trying to put the opera into the reality, to get closer to the public.”
That goes for all Mozart’s operatic works.
“They are all close to the human heart, to the feelings,” he continues. “They speak a lot about love, and about relationships between couples, and people. So I think everybody can find something of interest for their own life in this opera.”
Still, Ribis says there is at least one important area of opera that requires urgent professional attention.
“We need to learn from pop music how to do advertising for opera,” he says. “We don’t do that well. We have to stop thinking we are superior and that’s why people come to see us perform, just because our music is better. Of course, opera music is deeper than pop music. There is more meaning, more about human life, there is more art in the music than pop music. But we have to explain that to people. Otherwise, they will not get it.”
In that respect, Don Giovanni should be a marketing executive’s dream. “Yes, it has a lot going for it – love and a lot of sex. In that respect, it’s a bit like pop music,” says Ribis.
From the looks of it, the performances in the Old City will not lack for musical or visual pulling power.

The performances will take place on October 6 and 10 at 8 p.m. For tickets and more information: *6226 or