MASADA, Israel — A parade of bejeweled camels, elaborately costumed warriors and prancing horses crossed the stage. Jerusalem had fallen to a conqueror from the east. The high priest predicted disaster and the wrath of a vengeful deity. Three hours later, with searchlights flitting across the rugged face of this ancient fortress, the Jews were freed, the conqueror stood in awe of the God of the Jews, and, oh yes, a fat lady sang.
The Israeli Opera last weekend staged the opening performances of its “Nabucco,” Giuseppe Verdi’s first great success from 1842, around about where the Romans camped in A.D. 73 when they besieged the 1,300-foot heights of Masada. The company, which is based in Tel Aviv, intends this extravaganza to inaugurate a new annual outdoor opera festival. (There’s also a performance by the great American soprano Jessye Norman, whose services, it should be noted, do not come cheap.)
It might seem a risky proposition to start an annual outdoor opera festival at a time when Israel is isolated not only politically but, increasingly, in the cultural sphere. Pressure from boycott campaigners persuaded Elvis Costello last month to cancel open-air concerts at another historic venue — the Roman amphitheater in Caesarea. This week, alternative rockers The Pixies joined Carlos Santana and Gil Scott-Heron in pulling out of shows in Israel. Pro-boycott protesters have turned their attention to other performers with dates scheduled for Israel this summer, including Elton John.
The boycott pressure increased after the deadly May 31 incident aboard a Turkish boat headed for Gaza in defiance of Israel’s blockade. When Israeli commandos rappelled onto the boat, they were attacked by passengers and opened fire, killing nine, setting off a wave of international condemnation and renewed demands for an end to the restrictions on the Gaza Strip.
Despite the isolation represented by the withdrawal of such big-name musical acts, it’s unlikely that Israel’s own political drama will even so much as change the set as a result. “Will Israelis see how the world sees them, because of this boycott?” asks Gideon Levy, a leading left-wing Israeli journalist. “No, they’ll just say that The Pixies are anti-Semitic.”
Not all rock artists have proven susceptible to the boycott pressure. Public Image Limited singer John Lydon refused to cancel his July gig in Israel. Israeli newspapers reported that the former Johnny Rotten had confirmed he’d play in Tel Aviv and that he castigated those bands that canceled for making enemies out of their fans.
When a Sex Pistol provides a note of calm, you know strange times have come to the Middle East.
The Israeli Opera believes its investment will pay off. By setting itself up in Masada, it can take advantage of Israel’s tourism industry, which has largely recovered from the devastating years of the intifada during the last decade.
“Tourists come to Israel for many reasons, but not for culture,” said Hannah Munitz, the company’s general director, at a press conference before the final dress rehearsal this week. “We thought it was time to have a huge festival here.”
Munitz said 4,000 tourists were flying to Israel specifically to see “Nabucco.” Next year, the Israeli Opera will continue the annual performances at Masada with a production of Verdi’s “Aida.”
It took four years to organize “Nabucco,” four months to build the massive stage at the foot of Masada, and 2,000 people working backstage and onstage. There was considerable help from the regional council in what local officials acknowledged is not one of Israel’s most cultured areas. In fact, it's almost entirely desert, except for some resort hotels at the Dead Sea. “When Hannah told me she wanted to do ‘Nabucco,’ I thought she said osso buco, so I agreed with a good appetite,” said Dov Litvinoff, who heads the Tamar Regional Council and therefore has responsibility for the vastly differing historical legacies of Masada and nearby Sodom.
“Nabucco” tells the story — well, an extremely weird, melodramatic, operatic rendering of the story — of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem in 597 B.C. To summarize, the Jews are dragged off into exile. God makes Nabucco go mad. When he regains his sanity, he realizes the Jewish God is more powerful than him and tells the Jews to go home. (There’s a subplot in which one of his daughters decides to become a Jew, while the other one discovers she’s not his daughter and was born a slave, so she takes the throne while he’s mad, but repents of her nastiness at the end of the show. I told you it was weird.)
"‘Nabucco’ is really close to what is happening today with the Jewish people," said Paata Burchuladze, the Georgian bass who sings the role of Zaccaria, the high priest, referring to the sense many Israelis have that the rest of the world wishes them expelled from their homeland. Into those harsh current events, “music can bring love,” he adds.
The feeling of — as they see it, unjustified — isolation is familiar to Israelis. Their reaction to it has been almost as predictable as the worldwide chorus of condemnation for the killing of the Turks on the ship. If the plot of “Nabucco” sounds wacky, at least it keeps you guessing. Israel’s latest diplomatic drama has about as much capacity to surprise as the average soap opera. Like those soaps, it offers lots of emotional speeches, but nothing ever really seems to change in the relations between the characters.
Perhaps there is, however, one significant element of fallout from the botched Israeli commando raid on the Turkish ship. It might make an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities look even more an element of fantasy than ever. “This is the army you want to bomb Iran?” asks journalist Levy. “It’d be a catastrophe.”
Several senior politicians have distanced themselves from the operation and, while supporting the soldiers who went onto the boat, have condemned the preparations, even if they themselves were involved in the approval of the raid. Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon said this week that Israel needed to “examine the battle procedure.”
That might sound like the temporizing of a politician anywhere in the world, but Israel tends to take such things to extremes. After all, Ya’alon was part of the seven-man security cabinet which gave the go-ahead for the operation. Ought he not to have examined the battle plans already?
The production at Masada also offered something of an extreme operatic experience. It isn’t quite the same as famous outdoor productions elsewhere, such as Verona’s Roman arena. Because of the desert heat (even in early summer), performances in the 6,500-seat theater don’t get started until 10.30 p.m.
By the time the Mongolian soprano Baysa Dashnyam succumbed to poison and Nabucco packed the Jews off to Jerusalem, those in the audience facing a similar trek were unlikely to arrive at their homes before 3 a.m., an hour more often associated with rowdy rock fans than dignified opera goers.
Some things were typically Israeli, however. The former head of the country’s domestic security force, the Shin Bet, had a front row seat.