In the opera house encores are out the question — except at youthful Israel Opera, where on June 3 the audience got to hear it three times — and they loved it. This was only one feature of this production in the new, 6500-seat outdoor theater at the foot of Mt. Masada that made this Nabucco fresh and exciting.
Oren, music director of Opera Israel, knows his Verdi. He understands the composer’s style. He knows Verdi was not a subtle musician and — unlike others — he makes no effort to make something of him that he is not. Oren unashamedly relishes the oom-paah of the score, and for him the confused identities of the plot are unhackneyed. For Oren it’s all fun — and that’s what this 25th-anniversary staging that launched a new international summer opera festival was.
But back — to make this case — to Va pensiero. Having performed the chorus and given it again as an encore, Oren then made it a community sing — but not before turning to the audience to tell them that they must not applaud until he brought down his hand at the end of the final note.
The capacity crowd — all five performances of Navucco were sold out — followed his instructions, and then went wild. It was a hoot, and it’s safe to say that Opera Israel at Masada is here to stay. To underscore the prestige of this production IO assembled a cast as committed as it was impressive.
Sterling senior Paata Burchuladze, who came West long ago from Soviet Georgia, sang a majestic Hebrew high priest Zuccaria. (In 1995 Burchuladze sang the title role in the production of Boris Godunov that opened Israel Opera’s new home in Tel Aviv. Since then he has appeared regularly with the company.) Italian baritone Alberto Gazala, who made his IO debut in the title role in this production, went straight to the heart of the troubled Babylonian emperor and portrayed his breakdown and recovery with great dramatic skill. As Abigaille, Greek soprano Dmitra Theodosssiou handled the shifting vocal demands that Verdi makes on the central female figure in the cast with amazing ease, while Italy’s Tiziana Carraro was appropriately gentle and loving as Fenena. (In the alternate cast Mongolian-born Baysa Dashnyam sang Abigaille and Italians Eugenia Tufano, Fenena and David Cecconi, Nabucco.)
The exuberance that Oren brought to the production was an obvious inspiration to everyone on stage and to members of the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Le Zion, pit band of the company back home in Tel Aviv. It carried over to the audience as well, leaving them in a state of animated excitement when the performance ended at 1 a.m.
Behind the joyous success of Nabucco at Masada lay much more than the selection of a work and the assembly of a cast and production crew. We had to create the entire infrastructure for this project, said Opera Israel general director Hanna Munitz at a press conference before the June 3 performance of Nabucco. We had no example to follow; we had to figure it all out ourselves.
This meant not only building a modern theater in the middle of the dessert, but also arranging transportation from Israel’s major cities, organizing packages with the many hotels at the Dead Sea and providing shuttle service from them to the theater. It’s a dream that began four years ago, Munitz said. In the last four months it’s involved up to 600 people all working at one time. Of special importance was the choice of Britain’s Bryan Grant as sound designer for Nabucco. A totally natural sound prevailed throughout the performance.
Photo by Yossi Zwecker courtesy of Israeli Opera
The stage at Masada is 35 by 64 meters — three times as large as in OI’s home theater in Tel Aviv. Director Joseph Rochlitz worked largely without props, distributing the chorus and extras over the broad staircases at either side of the stage and in the area above it. Sets were by Nitzsan Refaeli; costumes by Alberto Spiazzi and lighting by Avi Yoni Bueno.
Munitz announced plans for the staging of Verdi’s Aida in 2011 and mentioned Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saens as a probable future choice for the festival. Nabucco, however, was the obvious opera to launch the festival. And that does in no way imply that Verdi thought of the story that plays following the destruction of the first temple down the road in Jerusalem as a Jewish Opera.
For the composer it was rather a veil for his concern about the state of his native Italy in the mid-19th-century. Be that as it may, you cannot hear Va pensiero — at least not in Israel — without hearing it as an anthem of the Diaspora. It is thus not surprising that the gala concert that celebrated the opening of Israel Opera’s new home in Tel Aviv ended with Va pensiero.
Israel Opera at Masada is further a cultural endeavor committed to an environmental cause: it is supporting a drive to see the Dead Sea named one of the seven new Wonders of the World. The level of water in the Sea is currently falling one meter per year. If this continues, it will be the end of the many hotels there and the tourism that they encourage.
Among projects under consideration is the building of a canal from the Mediterranean — a project envisioned by father of Zionism Theodor Herzl in his 1902 New Land, his Utopian vision of the Jewish state. Among sites under consideration for the new Seven Wonders list are the Amazon River, the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef. Nabucco — for those who might not know it — is short for Nebuchadnezzar.