Tibby and I attended a performance of the opera, Nabucco, on 5th June 2010 in the open air in the desert at the foot of Mount Masada at the Dead Sea in Israel. These notes have already been included in my larger article on Israel.
In this Italian opera written by Verdi in 1842 the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco), returns to Jerusalem in 586BC to quell a rebellion of the Jews. His adopted daughter, Abigaille, who had been a slave, conspires to take over the throne while the other daughter, Fenena, has fallen in love with the Jew, Ismaele, and converts to Judaism. When the king pronounces that he is God he is struck down and by a thunderbolt. Abigaille acts as regent and persuades the now insane Nabucco to sign a warrant for the death of all Israelis, which he remembers too late, will include Fenena. When Nabucco realizes that Fenena is about to be executed he prays to the God of the Israelites for forgiveness and his sanity returns. He regains his throne, Abigaille takes poison and Nabucco tells the Israelis to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. The opera is known as the Jewish Opera because of it’s focus on the Jews and the inclusion of the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ ( ‘Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate’ or ‘Fly, thought, on golden wings’), a chorus which is regularly given an encore when performed.
This performance of Nabucco was part of the inaugural festival being organised by the Israeli Opera at a venue built for the occasion in the desert about one kilometre from the eastern elevation of Mount Masada. Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea, is a mountain separated from the range around it with 300m steep sides and a relatively flat top of about five hectares. An early settlement was built there in 70BC which Herod expanded into a comprehensive residence including a large bathhouse and a temple just before the birth of Christ. It is not clear whether he used it much. From about 30 AD for about three years a group of almost a thousand Jewish zealots were besieged there by legions of the Roman Army. The Romans built a ramp to the top and eventually broke the siege to find that every Jewish man had killed his wife and children and in turn been killed by his colleagues with the last person committing suicide. This has become a legend in Israel with the oft repeated cry that ‘Masada shall never fall again’ being a metaphor for the state of Israel.
This was not an event for the ladies to go in high heels as we walked from the coaches to the entrance over the stony desert. We entered an enclosure of about an acre in size which was a holding area for the 5,000 audience. And what a holding area! There were hundreds of sofas, coffee tables, dining tables, dining chairs, bar tables and stools with people relaxing and drinking either side of an avenue to the auditorium which was marked out by mock pillars. We had paid for good seats and discovered that this entitled us to entrance to a VIP area where the tables were laden with bowls of olives, oranges, bananas, plums and watermelon! Small snacks were served and wine flowed. And all this was on the desert sand beneath the star filled sky in a temperature of 28°C.
The trumpets summoned us to Nabucco from our sofas in the desert. And then we were delighted. The orchestra under the passionate and masterful direction of Daniel Oren welcomed us. Tibby is far more knowledgeable than me on matters musical and she told me that the voices were true and passionate. Nabucco was sung by David Cecconi and Abigaille by Baysa Dashnyam. The costumes were ornate. The scenery was bare until the last act when we had a blazing arch followed by a huge burning menorah. There were chariots and horses and even camels on stage. When the temple was razed Mount Masada glowed red. I felt that the chorus was not lit properly at times but most of the time the lighting was dramatic. The thunderbolt was convincing. The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves was sung beautifully. There was an encore of the Chorus. And then a second encore where the conductor invited the audience to sing along. They responded in full voice. This is a special opera for the Israelis. To have this opera performed at Mount Masada made it even more special.