La Traviata, Mount Masada

Watching the opera in the middle of the Judean desert is a totally unique experience. Michal Znaniecki’s interpretation of Verdi’s La Traviata saw the “desert of Paris” relocated to Masada, the ancient fortification of Herod the Great that borders the Dead Sea and is now a UNESCO world-heritage site. This was an unforgettable performance, notable for the use of fantastical costumes, theatrical scenery and mellifluous arias.

A brief introduction to the setting: an almost surreal venue, it is a magical moment walking on a hot night through the desert, lit up only by rows of artificial lighting and the stars above. A hot, fiery climate, one wonders how the singers can perform, let alone breathe. Yet they did so, and in magnificent style.

Soprano Aurelia Florian, who played Violetta, in a pre-performance speech said “music is our medicine” and although in La Traviata Violetta’s fate would proclaim otherwise, Florian’s performance was nothing short of splendid.  A vast desert, there is little by way of acoustics to carry the vocals of the singers. However, Florian’s voice, ringing elegantly into the night became at times almost a private concert, with her mellifluous voice lulling the audience into a state of utter, melodious, and soporific bliss. With her honeyed, dulcet tones permeating the still air of the desert, her voice pierced the air with all the emotion worthy of a grand tragedy. Indeed, it is telling of a great enactment of La Traviata if the audience comes away with a sense of utter grief, conveyed by and shared with the performers.  And, in the oppressive heat, we certainly were teary afterwards!

Her duets with Alfredo, Jean-François Borras, proved the couple a dynamic duo. Jean-François Borras, a last minute substitute, was, in our opinions, absolutely fantastic. A strong, versatile tenor, the balance of emotion in his voice was measured and perfected. A highlight of his role was during the second half. In the card scene, Alfredo throws down the money won from gambling towards Violetta. Here, the wind  naturally picked up the notes and set them fluttering amidst a maelstrom of tension and emotion.

The choir’s synchronisation with the orchestra was perfected, carrying the score along through both tempestuous and melancholic scenes. Conductor, Israeli maestro Daniel Oren, skilfully led the orchestra gracefully through all the tempos and dynamics that Verdi’s beautiful score demands.

Special mention goes to the choir who were a coherent body of sonorous voices without microphones – a difficult feat considering the lack of acoustic backdrop. Costumes were ostentatious, ambitious and delightful, with performers emerging at times on stilts and at other times in an array of bold colours. The use of horses to carry characters on and off stage was a fantastic and ingenious accomplishment.

An incredible performance all-round, we can’t wait to follow the progress of the Masada Opera Festival as it rightfully takes its place as one of the leading opera festivals.

Next year’s performances will be Tosca and Carmina Burana:

With special thanks to the Israeli Tourism Board for organising the trip.