La Traviata at Masada: Paris Shall Not Fall Again

Staging 'La Traviata' under the skies, and also in the desert and in ostentatious style, may be the biggest sin ever committed against an artistic creation - but it worked.

Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev
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Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev

After the curtain fell on the opera “La Traviata” last weekend at Masada – which it did metaphorically, because there is no real curtain there between the stage and the audience under the skies – a massive wave surged toward the desert version of a parking lot.

It was impressive, as I wrote in a previous review: a veritable sea of people who came to see opera. They went to the ends of the earth, paid hundreds of shekels per ticket, crammed together on spine-ruining plastic seats, and watched a stage so far away that, like at New York's Madison Square Garden, it looked like a bunch of mosquitoes on a handkerchief.

And yet they came. The five languages in which the PA system addressed people, who looked patently European when converging on the food and drink stands, bore witness that cultural tourism – which apparently exists in Israel – has reached Masada, too.

The tourists, from near and far, got their wish: hot and dry weather, quite pleasant this time of year in the Judean Desert; the world’s most beautiful opera; a flawless production; and a huge, full moon shining down on everything, hanging above the desert like another kitschy lighting effect.

It would seem that the biggest sin someone has ever committed against an artistic creation is to stage “La Traviata” – not just under the skies, but in the desert and in ostentatious style. It would make more sense to stage “Waiting for Godot” at a trance party or to perform Beethoven during a World Cup warm-up than to send Violetta Valéry, the heroine of the opera and one of the bravest and greatest female figures ever to be created up by an artist, to the slopes under the cliff by the Dead Sea.

An example of this "injustice" was apparent in the first act. Verdi had brilliantly weaved together music and dance as a background for the hero and heroine to create intimacy. The music simultaneously describes the lavish party and the duet.

The entrance to the La Traviata at Masada. Photo by Tomer Apelbaum

In one moment the couples retire to a side room, the doors close, and the music fades as the guests evaporate, physically and symbolically. The stage is left to just the two lovers, singing a love duet like no one else has ever composed. Later comes the heroine’s monologue, which only the word "tremendous" can describe in terms of its musical and personal profundity.

But it is impossible to close doors at the foot of Masada and to hide people – so the dancers kept going as if what they heard was music to dance to, and not part of an operatic production wherein people’s conversations are heard and their thoughts are also expressed out loud, to a melody that does not justify dancing.

It was a difficult moment. I felt like running to the director and asking him, begging him, to please tell the lighting people to turn off the spotlight on the stage full of dozens of dancers, dressed in shiny costumes, making all kinds of movements to the sounds of one of the most wonderful achievements of European culture.

La Traviata at Masada. Photo by Tomer Apelbaum

Forget it, I told myself. Take a deep breath and let it pass. The thought left my mind.

Worth all the miscues

The Masada production had two dimensions. One was obviously tangible: the desert stage with an opera set. As time passed, that set became increasingly beautiful and sophisticated, in part thanks to its connection with the natural surroundings. It was truly breathtaking.

An electronic wall erected behind the stage altered its backdrop, but it wasn’t clear most of the time why it projected what it did: for example, the inner workings of a clock with the word for “time” in French, or rotating colors. But there was great beauty even in the dumb, mannerist characters. Together, the various accessories assembled– like a kind of Eiffel Tower, a windmill symbolizing hedonism and the dancers on stage – created a colorful and electric oasis, stunning in its beauty.

La Traviata at Masada. Photo by Yoav Pally

But all this was quite far away and prevented the audience from discerning what was transpiring on stage. To resolve that issue the production utilized a second dimension: huge screens to the left and right, projecting what was going on with the help of several cameras. This was the only way for the audience to figure out what was really happening. Subtitles appeared at the bottom of the screens, as if this were an opera being broadcast on television and not via close-circuit TV, or happening live on stage.

Thus the audience was simultaneously offered two completely different experiences from which they had to choose: watching a real opera happening here and now in the desert, or watching a recorded opera on television as if you were in your own living room, because from afar the gigantic screens did not look gigantic at all.

The two experiences merged in the end, despite being so separate. The eye spent 80 percent of the time on the screen, and from time to time glanced at the stage as part of a kind of space- and time-travel experience. And the desert wind that also mussed up the singers’ hair and clothing, as well as the moon and heat, didn’t let anyone forget reality.

La Traviata at Masada. Photo by Tomer Apelbaum

The three standouts among the cast were Elena Mosuc, the star soprano; Giorgio Berrugi as Alfredo; and Ionut Pascu as Germont. Seeing them close up was to see people work hard on every note, every movement. Almost two-and-a-half hours of music, which Berrugi and Mosuc performed without a break, while acting, expressing their souls through virtuosic singing. This presence was worth all the miscues along the way: the sweat, the false notes and mistakes, and the voice distortion because of a sound system that did not fail, but could not convey true vocal quality in such harsh conditions.

And so in this way, against all the theoretical odds, something worked in "La Traviata" at the foot of Masada, leading the crowd under cardboard gates of victory to the sound of music, with calls going out every five minutes to enter the auditorium when there wasn’t one.

And they still cry in this "La Traviata" and want to jump on stage and beg the heroine not to abandon her lover and admire her greatness.

It seems Israeli Opera did something right here.

General rehearsal for La Traviata at Masada. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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