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MASADA Israel (Reuters) - A spectacular performance of La Traviata, a tale of love and death, is the focus of the 2014 Masada Opera Festival with performances of Giuseppe Verdi's work at the arena on the shores of the Dead Sea.
The six-day festival, which ends on Tuesday, includes sets and costumes adorned by a myriad colored lights, flames and fireworks that create a dizzying spectacle with the imposing, bare sandstone Masada mountain serving as a backdrop.
Romanian soprano Aurelia Florian left the audience spellbound with her performance as Violetta, the opera's main character who rejects the love of her suitor Alfredo before dying prematurely.
La Traviata holds special significance in Israel's music history as it was the first opera to be staged in British-mandated Palestine, when an amateur group performed it in Tel Aviv in 1923. It has been regularly performed ever since.
Masada strikes a special chord among Israelis. According to the ancient historian Josephus, it was the site of a Roman siege that ended in 73 AD when hundreds of Jewish rebels committed mass suicide rather than fall as slaves to the Romans.
Built by King Herod as a winter palace between 37-31 BC, Masada is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has for decades been a source of archaeological fascination. The ambitious opera festival is being held there for the fourth time in five years.
After a break last year because of funding difficulties, the opera has returned to the craggy, desert site and has firm plans for performances until 2017, opera house general director Hanna Munitz said.
"It was very difficult for us to stop last year and it was very hard to come back, it's like restarting an engine. It's much easier to keep it going all the time... for the meantime we have plans for performances until 2017," Munitz told Reuters.
Each year after the festival has ended, the site has been returned to its natural, barren state but this necessitates reconstruction from scratch each year. Munitz said it was a worthwhile exercise to spread the medium to new audiences.
"We don't have a tradition for opera in Israel so the people that come here are mostly not used to it. Some, perhaps all of them, are people that see opera for the first time in their life - so you have to make it very accessible to them," she added.
Conductor Daniel Oren, an acclaimed performer of Italian opera and newly-appointed music director of the Israel Opera, told Reuters the site had inspired him to achieve greater things and that the festival could become a world-renowned event.
"Through the music you can go really very high and in this place in the desert you can achieve magical things. My dream is that this really becomes one of the most important festivals in the world because the place is unique," Oren said.
Israel's tourism ministry, which has given financial backing to the festival, said many more visitors had come to the country specifically because of it and the number was now around 3,000 tourists.
"(When) this event (started) we had only few hundreds, now we are talking about thousands (of visitors from abroad)... we have achieved our target and we are going to continue to invest in promoting this kind of event," said Sara Salansky of the tourism ministry.
Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Tom Heneghan