The Jerusalem Opera Festival: Lyrical adventure in the Middle East

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When we think of opera, cities like Vienna, Milan, Paris or New York spring to mind, rather than Jerusalem. But the holy city has been expending considerable energy these last few years to create an operatic scene worthy of the name. The Jerusalem Opera Festival, in its third edition this summer, is the result of these efforts to bring an artistic dream to fruition.

To publicize the festival, in June 2016 Israel’s Department of Tourism invited around 40 journalists from all over the world to cover the event. Top of the bill was Verdi’s Rigoletto, with a cast of singers from Israel and elsewhere. The next high point of the week was a multimedia show entitled Opera Paradiso. More intimate recitals and family shows in different venues across the city completed the program.

The festival’s hidden asset is the Sultan’s Pool, an open-air amphitheatre situated in an old, 12-metre deep water reservoir from the time of Herod. For centuries it was one of the largest sources of drinking water in Jerusalem. It is big enough to accommodate several hundred people in the middle of the city, so it does need amplification, but this is of good quality. While the sound of  cars on neighbouring streets might be a drawback, it’s soon forgotten when you reflect on the historic and symbolic importance of this amazing city bathed in the warmth of a summer evening.

The quality of the productions we attended was good. In Rigoletto, the most outstanding voice belonged to the coloratura soprano Hila Fahima (Gilda), an Israeli opera star beginning to make her name on the international scene. She also played Gilda at the Vienna Staatsoper in 2015. The show entitled Opera Paradiso comprised the better-known opera arias performed before a giant screen showing scenes from famous movies like The Godfather, Amadeus, Room with a View and The Fifth Element.

A recital of Italian arias, given at the amazing Museum of Italian Jewish Art – worth a detour in itself – made us realize something rather remarkable: today’s best operatic voices in Israel are female. Yet very few Israelis are keen on opera, which makes it rather difficult to establish a solid lyric tradition in the country. This lacuna is partly explained by the almost non-existence of children’s choirs, those usual breeding grounds for talent in western countries. So male soloists in Israeli operas are commonly from abroad. The young female singers we heard that day were trained at the Opera Studio for young artists at the Israeli Opera.

The capital, Tel-Aviv, benefits from the presence of Israeli Opera, which stages a number of major productions each season. Privately financed, the company was founded in 1982 after the State of Israel decided to stop funding  the Israel National Opera. Conductor Yoav Talmi, who is well known in Quebec, having been artistic director of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra for several years, was the first musical director of the new company.

This year, the Festival’s feature production will be Nabucco, conducted by the young Italian Francesco Cilluffo, and directed by Julia Pevzner, June 21 and 22. Soloists: Ionut Pascu – Romania (Nabucco), Ira Bertman – Latvia (Abigail), Anat Czarny – Israel (Fenena) and Alla Vasilevitsky – Russia (Anna).

Activities and hotels

Of course, apart from the operas, the historic heritage of Israel offers an array of attractions. In Jerusalem you can take a guided tour of the tunnels under the Wailing Wall and discover their centuries of history. And whether or not you’re Christian, it’s worth following the route that leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site of Golgotha.

As for accommodation, the gold standard is the sumptuous David Citadel Hotel, with its luxury rooms, extravagant buffets and magnificent swimming-pool overlooking the hotel gardens. Beguile a few hours by renting a Segway near the David Citadel to look around a bit and spare your feet. Don’t forget that in Israel, one of the day’s great pleasures is breakfast, a delicious banquet of fruit and nuts. For restaurants, we recommend the Eucalyptus, known for its Iraqi chef Moshe Basson, a chatty character who loves to offer guests freshly-picked herbs to try.

Translation: Cecilia Grayson

www.israel-opera.co; www.thedavidcitadel.com; www.the-eucalyptus.com

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