by Rino Alessi
Imagine you are spending a quiet morning sightseeing around the Tower of David, one of the most iconic sites in Jerusalem, during the first ever performance in the Holy City of Mozart’s Don Giovanni set to Da Ponte’s libretto – one of the greatest works of the Italian operatic repertoire. The main character, Gabriele Ribis, is serenading his love: “Deh, vieni alla finestra”… And right then, instead of Elvira’s maid – whom the playboy is trying to seduce – a tourist with a camera comes out on the balcony. The audience breaks out in laughter. Ribis, who is also stage director, notices the coincidence but decides to go on and plays along. It is one of the most enjoyable moments in what will lead to the founding of Jerusalem Opera in November 2011, when a group of people who love opera – a symbol of Italian musical excellence in the world – decided that Tel Aviv should not be the only stage for this great cultural repertory.
“There was just a handful of us”, says Omer Arieli, an Israeli orchestra leader who studied in Italy and is conducting this “Don Giovanni”. The Maestro, who co-founded Jerusalem Opera with Fern Brainiss, Yehoshua and Manon Weizman, adds, “We had very little experience – we still do, actually – but we wanted to do something good for music in Jerusalem. We got in touch with Albert Eskenazy, who lives in Germany but often visits the city; he shared our passion and gave us full support”. Other sponsors came along, and as Jerusalem Opera performs for the public for the first time, “the Jerusalem Municipality and Foundation are also watching. Of course we hope their help can become more tangible soon…”.
Why did they choose the “Don Giovanni”? And why are they performing at the Tower of David? “Gabriele Ribis suggested it”, producer Manon Weizman explains. “He was our guest artist in the gala concert that kicked off our activity in March 2012, and has always kept in touch as the artistic director of Friuli Venezia Giulia’s Piccolo Festival”.
Jerusalem Opera’s mission is to bring to the Holy City a range of works that the local audience has never had the chance to see, and to give Israeli artists a real alternative to emigrating to work abroad.
At the moment, the connection between Israel and Italy is represented by Omer Arieli and Shaked Bar, the soprano who plays Zerlina in this production. Both performed “Lagermusik” with Moni Ovadia, during the 2012 Piccolo Festival – centered on works by Hebrew authors, some of which survived the only Italian lager, Risiera di San Sabba, in Trieste. Shaked – who was still a student at the Jerusalem Academy at the time – recalls, “I had never been in a concentration camp, and it was very emotional for me”.
The stage of the “Don Giovanni” is a pre-existent rectangular, enclosed by railings and set between the stone walls of Jerusalem. The pit in which the 35-musician orchestra sits and the walkways that go from the stage to the great Tower, which is a central element to the performance, were built for the performance.
Careful casting has included artists who are either Israeli citizens or of Israeli origin, with the exception of Ribis as the protagonist, and Dario Giorgelè, a Verona-born baritone who was chosen for the part of Leporello for the tenth time in his career. “This is my first time in Israel, and I am curious and interested to know the country. Not to mention excited, to be singing in a historic site such as the Tower of David!”.
On stage, Giorgelè and Ribis have outstanding chemistry: “We are friends, not just coworkers”, Giorgelè explains. And he goes on to suggest the Piccolo Festival and Jerusalem Opera may collaborate again in the future: “The costumes we use in this ‘Don Giovanni’ are Italian too: they were made by Davide Amadei for last year’s performance in Udine; we hope that during the winter season we will be able to bring to the Jerusalem Opera some chamber opera productions ‘made in Piccolo Festival’”.