Christophe Rousset – Meet in Galilee, a new opera festival

I had a dream – that Sandrine Piau would sing the role of Alcina for my debut in Israel. That was my first thought when Muriel Haim, a physician and founder of the charity Un Coeur Pour la Paix, approached me and my ensemble Les Talens Lyriques about putting on an opera at the crusader castle in Akko, Israel.

Akko was once the Mediterranean’s strategic gateway to Jerusalem. This was the Knights Hospitallers stronghold in the Levant before Saladin’s troops forced them to retreat to Cyprus and from there to Malta. A tale of knights seduced by the man-eating sorceress Alcina, who succumbs to love for a Paladin (Charlemagne’s elite warriors), set against a backdrop of the inner courtyard of this fortress – what better stage could there be?

Alcina

Muriel’s charity provides life-saving heart treatment to Palestinian children from Gaza and the West Bank in Israeli hospitals. Her next next goal was to put on an economic forum titled Meet in Galilee on the theme of medi-tech, with baroque opera offered for the evenings’ entertainment. She chose Akko for the location as an example of a city where Jews, Arabs and Christians live together in harmony.

Opera had been staged in the crusader castle before but it had always been amplified. No one had tried to perform a baroque opera using the natural acoustics – this was unchartered water.

So many baroque composers have been inspired by the tales of the chevaliers as told in Tasso’s text Gerusalemme Liberata and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. These were my first thoughts as I walked into the citadel’s garden with its ancient ficus trees.

For this first venture we had to win over a new audience to baroque opera, so Handel’s operatic masterpiece was my first choice, along with Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, a tale of doomed love between the Carthaginian queen and her love Aeneas. For our 400 guests of the medical world, we coupled this early English operatic masterpiece with Charpentier’s Acteon.

Alcina

Akko had been the centre of the sugar industry – sweet syrups were the base of Arabic medicine, rather than the purging cures promoted by the Christian world. This attracted European merchants – Venetian, Pisan and Genoese – to the city, which became a flourishing, wealthy port. Everyone has left their imprint on this corner of the world, though today’s old city, a warren of medieval street markets, mosques and hamams, is predominantly Arabic.

We stayed in this old city surrounded by the aromas of the orient, a stone’s throw from the fortress, so that we could rehearse late into the evening. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality and warmth of the locals, who took every opportunity to show us their city.

Another find was the Efendi Hotel, an Ottoman frescoed boutique hotel, which feels like something from the set of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The building has been painstakingly restored over nearly nine years by restaurateur Uri Buri, whose tasting menu shows his flair for combining unexpected flavours. Over tapas of mascarpone sprinkled with black and orange fish roe he explained his love for the town, and the pride he takes in having a staff made up of both Arabs and Jews. Savouring white wine from Galilee, we realised a common dream – the pursuit of archaeology to understand where we come from. I, through music in unearthing forgotten operas and he, through preserving a piece of architectural history.

I wanted to use this opportunity to discover some new home-grown talent in Israel and we were not disappointed on the first night by Daniela Skorka as a delightful Belinda, Yair Polishook as Aeneas and Anat Edri as first witch.

Unfortunately when we contacted Sandrine Piau to engage her for Alcina we were too late – she had already been booked elsewhere. I was disappointed, as we have worked on numerous productions together. But then in August her replacement Karina Gauvin fell ill, and at the last minute Sandrine said she could fly out just in time for the performance. A dream had come true after all.

Coming to Israel has been a wonderful eye-opener to this world and its rich history. On my maternal line my family are Jews from Algeria. Though baptised, I have grown up with a loose approach to religion, and I read the bible to understand the arts, as all Western culture is rooted in tales from this ancient land. Bethlehem and Jerusalem are as familiar sounding to us as Marseilles or Birmingham.

Our performances were not without the challenges of any new enterprise – clanking generators, wheezing air conditioning, playful cats and attendants answering mobile phones. But in spite of all this, the performance was an enormous success. The courtyard in Akko fortress has a super acoustics and I hope that someday we will be able to return and bring more baroque operas with their legendary tales of the Levant. In the meantime, next stop Versailles and Vienna for a complete change – Salieri’s Les Horaces – on 15 and 18 October.

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