Soundbox / Operatic desert storm
Despite the effort to transform this spectacle - with pillars of fire and horses on Masada - about an evil Babylonian king into a Jewish opera about the return to Zion, the production of 'Nabucco' was not annoying.
The name "Nebuchadnezzar" does not have positive connotations, and in fact sounds a bit like "Nasser," which has unpleasant associations among some Jews today. In his kingdom, however, Nebuchadnezzar was a sort of early incarnation of enlightened despotism, known for his architectural undertakings - including the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world - and for the way in which he promoted his nation's cultural heritage. He also transformed his kingdom into a wondrous city-state surrounded by walls, on both sides of the Tigris River, and into a powerful global empire.
But in one of its distant colonies, the land of Israel, they took a good beating from this king. He conquered their capital, Jerusalem, killed and plundered them, destroyed their Temple, tortured their king and exiled entire populations, before installing a collaborator-puppet ruler on the throne, named Zedekiah.
King Nebuchadnezzar was therefore a disaster for the Jewish population 2,500 years ago, and thus has a permanent place in the list of various enemies who, generation after generation, rose up to "wipe out our people." So why have tens of thousands of Israeli Jews been flocking this past week to the middle of nowhere - the slopes of Masada - to hear and see the opera of which this wicked enemy is the chief protagonist? Would they also have come if the opera was about Ahmadinejad?
Europe in the 19th century, like Babylon in its day, was imperialistic and its colonial powers typically exploited the exotic native populations they conquered, while also admiring and them for being "noble savages." For his part, and like other composers, Verdi was also affected by this romanticized, not so say racist, phenomenon.
He composed "Nabucco" nine years and a dozen operas before he became the "real" Verdi - the one who blossomed with "Rigoletto," in 1851.
There are moments of Verdian charm and greatness in the early work, like the recitative and aria of the heroine, Abigail, the terzetto in the first act, and the famous "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" - the short, beloved piece that reflects the mature Verdi. But with the exception of these few glimmerings, "Nabucco" is a mixture of a ridiculous and unrealistic plot, at the end of which the hero himself turns out to be a "noble savage" after sending the exiles home; fabricated characters; and banal music.
It is thanks to the few beautiful moments, and especially to the potential it has for being a giant spectacle on stage, that this opera has remained in the repertoire.
The Israel Opera identified this potential, added two and two together, and presented "Nabucco" as a Jewish opera relevant to our times - about the return to Zion. In this way, a rather hallucinatory connection was established between Italian nationalism - of which Verdi was one of the chief spokesmen - the exotic nature of the European "grand opera," the Jewish revolt against Rome 600 years after Nebuchadnezzar, and Zionism, some 2,000 years later. "Verdi was a great prophet" and "this is sacred music," as the conductor, maestro Daniel Oren, interpreted it.
3. The slopes of Masada
"The audience is requested to rise to its feet for the entrance of the president," the announcer declared, as if King Nebuchadnezzar himself had arrived. And after that, we had to remain standing to sing "Hatikva," in the spirit of the nationalism that was selling here like hotcakes.
The boiling-hot Judean Desert, even at 1 A.M., with its fantastic scenery surrounding the Dead Sea and the threatening cliff of Masada looming above the stage as a natural prop - all these are indeed a wonderful context for this opera, indeed any opera. But in this case a myth was being built, and not merely an opera, and the history of Masada, on top of which there was a mass suicide of Jews, was being put to use.
"This is the symbol of the Jews' choice of freedom, even at the price of risking their lives," Shimon Peres declared, raising the philosophic-metaphysical question of whether one can understand the term "freedom" if there is no life.
Somehow, sacrificing one's life to sanctify God's name always works well for the Jews. The Jews of Masada who committed suicide, like Hannah and her seven sons, are conceived of as completely logical and humane when contrasted with the Japanese kamikaze, for example, or the Palestinians who blow themselves up in buses, or the suicidal bombers of the Twin Towers. Indeed, the Jewish martyrs are shining examples of bravery and freedom.
To tell the truth, the Masada story is more reminiscent of the tragedy of Christian cult leader Jim Jones (who used rape and other forms of violence against his followers, and provoked more than 900 people to commit mass suicide in 1978 ): Eleazar Ben-Yair, the leader of the Jews on Masada, must certainly have been a kind of Jim Jones, forcing wretched followers to believe that it would be better to die than to live in captivity, and thus to sanctify the name of God and win the right to go to heaven. As for those who refused, his Sicarii soldiers surely knew how to deal with them with their sharp swords.
4. Daniel Oren
Against all odds, and despite the tongues of flame and the pillars of smoke that engulfed the stage, the horses (reportedly flown in here specially from abroad ), the camels, the tremendous towers of spotlights and floodlights on Masada, and the entire giant spectacle (which some said was like a children's song festival for adults ) - the performance of "Nabucco" neither riled nor irritated one. It was even pleasant. The stage hands with their professionalism succeeded in justifying the effects which in less practiced hands might have been embarrassing. Instead of pompous grandeur, the stage had an air of modesty, despite the millions spent there on pyrotechnics. Furthermore, tolerant members of the audience made do with the sound, even though the flute was too intense, and the brass instruments overpowered and hampered the balance between the singers.
The only one who tried to grab the limelight was Daniel Oren. He is generally considered an excellent conductor and has few equals in Italian opera style. He directed the orchestra and the huge ensemble wonderfully and took them through the three complicated hours with perfection. But there was also his sickly sweet conducting of "Hatikva" in the beginning, and the ridiculous show of bowing led by him in an embarrassing fashion at the end, simply to get attention.
The climax of the performance I attended came as part of a well-orchestrated plot in which someone from the audience - those in the know say that it was someone from the Israel Opera - demanded at the top of his lungs that the Hebrew slaves chorus be sung once again as an encore, and it was. And afterward Oren, in a spontaneous burst of emotion, gave in, as he put it, to his overflowing emotions and gave a speech so sentimental that it is best not to repeat it here ... But, wait a moment: If it was so spontaneous, how was a microphone waiting for him on the stand with the score?
5. The VIP compound
Tycoons, billionaires, owners of soccer clubs, mayors, cabinet ministers, district prosecutors and senior officials all went to the trouble of being seen and rubbing shoulders at this event, which could not be missed from the social point of view. The numbers that flew around were cosmic: 4,000 tourists arrived for the performances of "Nabucco" in special flights from abroad, NIS 40 million was spent on the show, and there were 40 tons of equipment for what was touted as the most expensive production ever, before audiences of 6,500 people every evening.
But the most fun was in the VIP compound where newspaper critics were allowed in, at least until the third performance when Bank Discount, the sponsor, would permit entry only to reporters writing "color and gossip," not music critics, to be present.
It was worth it: In a setting designed in an ancient style, in the middle of the desert, we were served sausages in grape sauce, a glass of wine, as much fruit as you could eat - and coffee, all free.
It was said that a couple paid some NIS 1,800 for the return trip, the opera and a night at one of the Dead Sea hotels - not so much for the shrinking middle class for a cultural extravaganza in the desert.