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BWW Reviews: Israeli Opera Festival Takes the Leap with TOSCA, Staged at the Foot of the Historic Masada Fortress

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Soprano Svetla Vassileva as Tosca,
Sergei Murzaev as Scarpia
Soprano Svetla Vassileva as Tosca,
tenor Gustavo Porta as Cavaradossi

At Masada--the mountain fortress in Israel's Judean Desert--a group of besieged Jewish rebels killed themselves rather than be taken alive by the Romans almost 2000 years ago. In Puccini's TOSCA, the eponymous heroine jumps from Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo (except in the Met's current version where a dummy is thrust from the tower and suspended in mid-air) rather than being taken prisoner for killing the evil chief of police, Scarpia, during the Napoleonic Wars.

So much for the logic of staging this intimate work as part of the fifth edition of the Israeli Opera Festival, in handsome, temporary quarters built at the base of Masada. But, remarkably, the very traditional production by French director Nicolas Joel worked very well indeed in the great outdoors.

With an effective Tosca in the hands of Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassileva and the fortress itself playing a powerful supporting role in the final act, alit and towering over the opera stage, as TOSCA's climactic scene took shape, the performance held the audience in its grip.

It shouldn't have worked so nicely, from the way Puccini envisioned it at least. According to the biography of Puccini by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, when the composer asked his publisher to get the rights to the source material by Victorien Sardou, he said, "I see in this [play] Tosca the opera I need, with no overblown proportions, no elaborate spectacle, nor will it call for the usual excessive amount of music."

Those of us who know the opera well would admit that it is hardly ever done to those specifications: The Met's longtime production by Franco Zeffirelli, for example, had an opening scene in the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle on the scale of St. Peter's in Rome. Still, with the skills of the scenic and lighting designers put to use, it can be brought down to size. Yet, in this kind of environment, "overblown proportions" and "elaborate spectacle" are pretty much the order of the day. Think AIDA or, on next year's agenda for the festival, SAMSON ET DALILA, not TOSCA.

Not that there was any shortage of sound from the Israel Symphony, under the festival's music director, Daniel Oren. He led a sweeping performance that still brought out the nuances of the score. The amplification may not have always brought out the most refined sound, but, frankly, audiences at this kind of performance are there for the grand experience and the orchestra played its role quite well. So did the chorus, comprised of the Israel Opera Chorus, under Ethan Schmeisser, and the Moran Youth Choir, under Naomi Faran and Sarit Steckler.

Welcome to cultural tourism, 21st century-style. While the Festival might not offer the brilliant natural sound of a Roman-built amphitheatre, or the man-made acoustics of one of the world's great houses, this site has the dramatic presence of Masada that's unmatchable.

Add to that soprano Vassileva, who cut a glamorous figure and had plenty of voice for Tosca, though the amplification system was not always her friend. Nevertheless, this was definitely her evening, with the famed aria, "Vissi d'arte," in Act II a highlight. Tenor Gustavo Porta and baritone Sergei Murzaev were fine as the object of Tosca's affection (and jealousy) and nemesis, respectively, but they gave smaller scale performances. In the supporting roles, bass Carlo Striuli resonated as Angelotti and bass-baritone Vladimir Braun was a proper sacristan, while tenor Yossef Aridan and baritone Oded Reich, as Scarpia's henchmen Spoletta and Sciarrone, respectively, were properly odious. Soprano Anat Czarny carried her solo beautifully as the Shepherd in the Castel Sant'Angelo scene, though I missed the pure sound of a boy soprano in the role.

Except for a huge curved wall, in front of which the action takes place, the scenic effects were all created through computer-generated projections that brought a cinematic feel to the proceedings. Designer Emmanuelle Favia worked magic with the help of Vinicio Cheli's lighting in Acts I and III. (The fine costumes were by Katia Duflot.) Act II, which takes place in the confines of the police chief's office in the Palazzo Farnese and cries out for intimacy, was less successful. As Tosca pleads for the life of her lover, Mario Cavaradossi, asking Scarpia, "How much--what is the price [for Mario's freedom]?" and he reacts smugly, there is usually a chill in the air and hairs raised on the back of listeners' necks. Here, it was as if the interplay between Tosca and Scarpia were being played out on a football field. The production otherwise had smooth sailing.

The Festival's other "opera" was not an opera at all: Carl Orff's cantata, CARMINA BURANA. It consists of 24 songs for soloists, choir and orchestra, mostly in Latin, and is usually presented without staging. Here, it had everything but the kitchen sink, including choreography by Elzbieta Szlufik-Pantak and Grzegorz Pantak performed by the Kielce Dance Theatre of Poland. Much of the audience seemed to enjoy the spectacle, which the Polish director, Michael Znaniecki, called "Indiana Jones in Masada" in the program notes. James Judd led the The Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion in a brisk performance, along with the Israeli Opera Chorus under Chorus Master Ethan Schmeisser. Soprano Alla Vasilevitsky stood out among the soloists.

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I visited the Israeli Opera Festival, the Dead Sea and other fascinating sites in Israel as the guest of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.


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