From Paris, with sand: La Traviata opera rocks desert fortress

Verdi’s tragic love story draws thousands to the foot of Masada, a dramatic mountain fortress where Jews jumped to their deaths rather than be captured by Romans.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
Cast members perform during a dress rehearsal for La Traviata at the foot of Masada in this June 11, 2014 file photo. A spectacular performance of La Traviata is the focus of the 2014 Masada Opera Festival at the arena on the shores of the Dead Sea.

The opera, with its exaggerated costumes and characters, looms larger than life wherever it is performed. But it takes on added drama at the foot of Masada, that ancient stage of tragedy and triumph where Jewish rebels are said to have leapt to their death rather than be captured by Roman soldiers nearly two millennia ago.

King Herod was known for bringing Italian frescoes and furniture to impress Roman guests at his mountaintop fortress that rises 1,300 feet above the Dead Sea. So perhaps it is fitting that his Jewish descendants have now brought Italian opera to Masada.

Verdi’s La Traviata, the story of a Parisian woman who flits from pleasure to pleasure until an admirer convinces her of the merits of true love, is the centerpiece of the fourth annual Israeli Opera Festival that ends today. In between the remains of Roman siegeworks, thousands of guests mingle among temporary cafés complete with European fare, rose bouquets, and wafting strains of opera.

The outdoor show begins at 9:30 p.m. From the moment when the diva’s first notes float upward from the grand stage, to the fireworks that punctuate the end of a duet, to the finale when she dies in her lover’s arms, it feels like the latest act in the long drama of humanity that has played out on these desert slopes.

Masada means stronghold in Hebrew, and some say it is the place to which the biblical King David fled to escape his enemies. In Herod’s day, it boasted palaces, an elaborate steam bathhouse, and an 18-foot wall surrounding the fortress. 

After Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD, Jewish rebels holed up here for three years. The Romans mobilized thousands of troops and eventually breached the fortress by means of an earthen ramp up the backside of the mountain that took two years to construct.

When they arrived, they found that the rebels had killed themselves, according to the 1st century historian Josephus, though his account has been called into question by archaeological evidence.

Rite of passage

Today Masada is seen as a symbol of Israeli strength and defiance, and a field trip here is almost a rite of passage for Israeli schoolchildren. But there’s one student who never made it here, because his mother was too busy shuttling him around to all the best teachers in Israel: piano, solfege, singing, violin, cello, painting, and – from the age of 13 – conducting.

His name is Daniel Oren, and he has become an acclaimed international conductor, working with Pavarotti, among others. It wasn’t until six or seven years ago that he finally made the pilgrimage to Masada. Now he's returned to conduct the Israeli Symphony Orchestra Rishon-LeZion for La Traviata.

“With our history and with Masada in front of us, it’s much stronger emotion here,” said Mr. Oren, relaxing in a makeshift desert dressing room that is part Broadway, part Bedouin. “I feel part of the tradition, part of the Jewish story when I’m walking through the stones.”

Then Oren walked out of his tent, through the dusty paths once trod by Roman soldiers, to join the singers and dancers for their turn on this ancient stage.

“Now it’s the present,” said Ionut Pascu, a Romanian opera star getting the final touches of makeup for his part as Germont, the lover’s father. “Now it’s our time.”

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