OPERA NEWS - Tosca (6/4/15), Carmina Burana (6/5/15)
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Tosca (6/4/15), Carmina Burana (6/5/15)

Israeli Opera Festival at Masada

The Israeli Opera Festival at Masada presented Puccini’s Tosca and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in its spectacular outdoor venue, constructed at the foot of the popular tourist site, a sacred plateau where nearly one thousand first-century Jewish resistance fighters committed suicide rather than submit to slavery at the hands of the conquering Roman army.

Both conductor Daniel Oren and stage director Nicolas Joel, the team for Tosca (seen June 4), have worked in huge outdoor spaces such as the Arena di Verona and the Roman Théâtre Antique d’Orange in France, but Masada’s man-made 6,500-seat theater in the middle of the desert presents different problems. While acoustics at the ancient amphitheaters are legendary, the raised stage structure and separate bleacher seating at Masada require electronic amplification, resulting in a generic loud sound, with little direction or subtlety. Carmina Burana’s pageant-like presentation and predominantly choral sound posed fewer problems than Tosca, where the diva’s off-stage cantata nearly drowned out the onstage dialogue, and the shepherd’s song (nicely voiced by the maestro’s daughter, Roman Oren) seemed to be coming from a radio.

With the massive plateau of the sacred site rising up behind, large monitors on either side of the stage provide video close ups, with translations in English and Hebrew. But the playing area is 210-feet wide (more than twice as wide as the Met’s stage), and kept the cast sprinting between the Attavanti chapel and Cavaradossi’s scaffold workstation. Scarpia’s office — a few pieces of furniture center stage — was dwarfed, except when director Joel had seven black-clothed henchmen spread out to fill the space with quiet menace. If only he had left some guards hanging around the rooftop of the Castel Sant’Angelo to enliven the vast empty space in Act III. 

Set designer Emmanuelle Favre created a semi-circular wall, inscribed “ROMA 1800” and topped by the Castel Sant’Angelo’s avenging archangel Michael, that served for both shows. Projections served successfully to change locales, and included frescos for Act I’s Sant’Andrea della Valle setting, marble paneling for Scarpia’s office, with the “O” of “ROMA” sliding back to provide secret passage to the torture chamber, and crenellated battlements for the final act. The traditional visual concept was matched by old-fashioned grand opera acting, with most of Act II resembling the classic Zeffirelli-Callas-Gobbi footage from Covent Garden in 1964.

Under conductor Daniel Oren’s demonstrative baton, Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassileva brought old-school glamour and a gleaming, expressive voice to the title role. As Mario Cavaradossi, Argentine tenor Gustavo Porta did little more than shout, lunging heavily from note to note and indicating emotion broadly, albeit with commitment, and he delivered the requisite high notes. Russian baritone Sergei Murzaev played Scarpia as a charmless brute, while his hefty voice lacked a true legato.

Clever projections by Bogumil Palewicz enlivened Luigi Scoglio’s fanciful set for Carmina Burana (seen June 5).  The stage frontispiece was an entertainment in itself, with a procession of snakes, underwater creatures, and architectural elements complementing the magical forests, seascapes and neon circus animals of director Michal Znaniecki’s bizarre Indiana Jones concept. Imposing a narrative on this choral-dance piece is tricky and, with this production’s rich visual feast, unnecessary. So was the brief equestrian parade at intermission. 

The baritone solos were fashioned into a single role and, as a doomed archeologist, baritone Enrico Maria Marabelli lacked both high and low notes, and sang dully. Russian-born soprano Alla Vasilevitsky made a striking entrance in a sailboat and was captivating and nuanced in her several lyrical solos. It’s a mistake to cast a countertenor in the high tenor role, and here plummy-voiced Alon Harari was unable to project the tormented wail of the roasting swan effectively.

Conductor James Judd, music director of the Israel Symphony Orchestra, the festival’s pit support, led capably, while acrobats, dancers and extras partially obscured the chorus. Costumed by Magdalena Dabrowska as World War I soldiers with red-gowned partners, they participated in the action of the opening and closing, but otherwise remained seated and used scores for Orff’s setting of medieval monks’ drinking songs. —Judith Malafronte 

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