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MASADA, Israel (Reuters) - Music lovers have found cause to celebrate in a groundbreaking spectacular opera event at one of Israel's most important landmarks.
The staging last week of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi's Nabucco on a patch of desert on the shores of the Dead Sea with the historic mountain of Masada as a backdrop has taken Israel Opera to new realms, its director said.
"We know how to mount an opera in an opera house as it is something we have been doing for 25 years, but it is not easy to build an opera city in the middle of the desert," the Israel Opera's general director Hanna Munitz told Reuters.
Outdoor opera is not a new concept and a number of well established, popular festivals have captivated audiences at ancient settings worldwide. But with no infrastructure to hand, the task at Masada was daunting and expensive.
"We came to virgin desert and we had to build everything: infrastructure, to flatten the rough terrain, to build roads, electricity ... a stage and a huge tribune for 6,500 people," Munitz said.
Masada is a flat-topped mountain where King Herod the Great built a fortress completed in 31 BC.
According to ancient historian Josephus it was the site of a Roman siege that ended in 73 AD when hundreds of Jewish rebels known as Sicarii committed mass suicide rather than fall as slaves to the Romans.
The story of the Sicarii's defiance has turned the bare sandstone mountain into a revered site for Israelis and Jews who see it as a symbol of defiance in adversity.
That perception tied in well with the choice of Nabucco, the tale based on biblical king Nebuchadnezzar's capture and sacking of Jerusalem and his exiling of the Jews to Babylon.
"Nabucco is probably the most Jewish of all Verdi's operas and this area is so symbolic for Jewish history. So we thought that a combination of both will bring an added value to what we are doing," Munitz said.
Israel's Tourism Ministry, also a partner in the project, saw the event as a chance to attract tourists.
"Never before have tourists come to Israel especially for a cultural event ... some 4,000 are coming for this from all over the world," Munitz said.
Previous cultural events have been held at Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage site and for decades a source of archaeological fascination, but Nabucco is the most ambitious musical project there to date.
Munitz said the week-long event at the foot of the mountain took three years of planning and cost some 20 million shekels (about $7 million), most of the expenditure covered by ticket sales.
Five full performances and a gala concert featuring famed U.S. soprano Jessye Norman were a sellout weeks in advance, proving that Masada's isolation and distance from main population centres was not an obstacle.
Munitz said there are plans to stage Aida, another Verdi opera, next year with the hope of making the venue a permanent fixture on the world's opera festival calendar.
Spectacular lighting and pyrotechnics, a choir of more than 120 singers and a similar number of actors, and horses and camels on a huge stage made for a memorable performance under the baton of conductor Daniel Oren, an expert in outdoor opera.
Georgian bass Paata Burchuladze, who sang the role of Jewish high priest Zakaria, is no stranger to outdoor opera festivals. But he said performing at Masada was unique.
"This is something very, very special and I'm sure that very soon (operas at Masada) will be very famous around the world," he said.
Although impressed with the technical aspects of the production, Omer Shomroni, a music critic for Israel Radio, said the music "lacked excitement."
"The more heartwarming and delicate arias do not come across fully," he said citing the need for sound amplification in outdoor venues and a desert wind that detracted from the unhindered sound in an opera house.
Shlomo Toledo, a member of the audience on dress rehearsal night, was beaming after the event.
"I have seen this opera before in Tel Aviv, but to see it near Masada has doubled the enjoyment," he said.
Additional reporting by Rinat Harash, Editing by Paul Casciato