Dispatch from Masada: A truly triumphal 'Aida' blossoms in the Dead Sea desert [Video]
"Aida" has always demanded a sizable landscape for Verdi's greatest operatic spectacle to bloom. Saturday night, on the desert floor below the imperious bulk of Masada adjacent to the Dead Sea, the epic work blossomed in a world premiere performance by the Israeli Opera.
As the centerpiece of a 10-day summer opera festival, now in its second year, the company has set down roots against a stunning natural backdrop with a 2,000-year-old history that symbolizes the resilience of the Jews against their enemies.
While summer outdoor opera festivals -- notably in the Roman amphitheaters in Verona, Italy, and Orange, France -- routinely marshall the hundreds of performers in an ancient setting necessary to put on "Aida," the Israelis have upped the ante by replacing traditional scenery with cutting-edge 4-D video technology and expansive lighting. The staging had many of the 8,000 opening-night attendees audibly gasping at what they saw.
For instance: At the start of the third act, a scene set along the Nile River, Aida approaches for a clandestine rendezvous with her secret love, Rademes. Here she arrived on camelback, while, in the distance, a train of seven camels paraded through the Dead Sea desert. Since livestock is a standard part of any "Aida," no surprises there, but the moment was more than a colorful touch -- in this setting, it felt like two millennia of time floating away.
As the two lovers sang for the next 15 minutes, expressing their desires and fears, the water imagery continually rippled in the background, bathing the bleak, desert surroundings in an oasis of sight to underscore the sounds from the stage.
Ultimately, as with any opera, sonics were the key -- this wasn't just a production of smoke and mirrors. While the sound in this massive outdoor setting was necessarily amplified, there was much musicality to appreciate.
Young American soprano Kristin Lewis is forging a largely European career with an upwards trajectory; her Aida showcased a voice with sizable range and depth of feeling. Charismatic conductor Daniel Oren, urging his forces in the pit and on stage at every beat, was wonderfully in sync with his lead singer, and in scene after scene on this oversized stage Lewis somehow managed to convey her character's vulnerability amidst the sprawling logistics.
Beyond the other soloists -- strong singing across the board -- the 20 sopranos in the Aida Chorus, under chorus master Yishai Steckler, were especially persuasive singing the ethereal priestess song in Act 1 while choreographer Jean-Charles' Gil's supple dances in the Act 2 Triumphal Scene effectively channeled the 50-plus Israeli Opera Dancers' youthful buoyancy.
Lewis did have one vocal miscue, but it was a noble try in the large-scale spirit of the proceedings as a whole. She attempted to crown the end of the Triumphal Scene with Maria Callas' legendary live, extemporaneous interpolated E-flat exclamation point.
Lewis had to break the note off, but got chutzpah points for the attempt. A Callas homage at the base of Masada? Splendid spectacle, indeed!
This new production of "Aida" will be staged by co-producer Chorégies d'Orange at the arena in Orange, France, in July. For next June's opera festival at Masada, the Israeli Opera has scheduled Bizet's "Carmen."
-- Christopher Smith, from Masada, Israel
Photos, from top: A scene from Israeli Opera's production of "Aida" at Masada; Kristin Lewis as Aida. Credits: Josh Stern; Yossi Zwecker
Video credit: Josh Stern