MASADA, Judean Desert — If you ever wonder how members of the moneyed classes with esoteric passions choose to spend their down time, here is one.
Had you wandered down the highway north of Jerusalem at any night of the past week, you would have seen 5,000 people ensconced in their seats on de luxe but temporary stands, in the pitch dark at about 9:30 p.m., gently buffeted by soft gusts of a hot, slow-moving wind.
The bone-dry air and the lazy swells, at 91 degrees, endow the evening with an added layer of mystery and opulence, as if the eager group is cosseted by friendly marshmallows.
In front, a surreal moonscape of rocks and low dunes unfolds, abruptly interrupted by an arresting flat-topped mount, itself crowned by a fortress.
It is a lot to take in. Then, out of nowhere, the party is on.
An exquisite old-style Spanish village materializes, a bugler announces himself from a low sandy ridge, horses move in bearing well-groomed officers, and some of the best-known opera tunes emerge, out of the ground:
An opera, in the middle of the desert, with a hidden live orchestra pit, gives surround sound an entirely different dimension.
What you are seeing is "Carmen," a production the Israel Opera put on this year for the benefit of the summer outdoor opera festival crowd — people who travel around, to Lucerne, Verona and Santa Fe and, now, to the Judean Desert, seeking a good old-fashioned thrill, opera in the public sphere, extravagantly meshed into a natural environment that probably never contemplated such a spectacle.
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The looming mountain behind the set is real, Masada, the isolated rock plateau on which Herod the Great built a series of fortified palaces to which he could, theoretically, escape, just before the time of Christ.
It became famous as the location in which the Sicarii sect of Jews hid from the invading Roman legion and, in the end, facing annihilation, chose mass suicide over defeat in about 70 AD. Today, you can find there some of the best preserved remaining Roman legion camps on earth.
And if you follow the international summer outdoor opera festival circuit, it is where you might find yourself next year, for a spectacle of Turandot.
Victor Faux, chairman of the British Friends of the Israel Opera, revels in the showmanship of the outdoor production, feeling "total exhilaration" as he saw the fiery Carmen — an up-and-coming 29-year-old Israeli opera star, Na'ama Goldman, who was sent suddenly on stage on opening night when the Italian star Anna Malavasi took ill — prance onto the dusty Spanish plaza.
"It is just an amazing spectacle. The sheer complexity of what goes into it. Three hundred people on stage. The way the set was built into the natural environment. It is always absolutely astonishing," he said.
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Israeli critics hit hard at the set's acoustics, but the thousands milling about at intermission, sipping cava at the accompanying tavern and munching on mini-chorizos seemed not to mind.
"If you want acoustic purity you don't even go to an opera house," Faux, a man of clear and operatic opinions, said. "You stay home with your surround-sound. People bring their mobile phones to the opera, God help us. If you go to an open-air opera performance in the UK, planes fly over on their way to Heathrow, or it rains. The critique of the acoustic quality has to do with the half-baked critics. Honestly, the only thing that is mediocre in this instance is the quality of Israeli opera critics."
There is a long tradition — still practiced in Italy, where, incidentally, Faux believes some of these critics should head for a refresher course — of "outdoor music that is excellent and popularly accessible. It is exactly what opera was always meant to be!"