MASADA, Israel (Reuters) - An Israeli opera festival's center-piece at the revered historical site of Masada this month was a tale of betrayal, love and death in the shape of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi's Aida.
The spectacular staging on the barren shores of the Dead Sea with the stark sandstone plateau as a backdrop, followed performances of Verdi's Nabucco at the same venue last year.
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.
In Aida, an Ethiopian princess kept as a slave in ancient Egypt chooses to die with her beloved, a young Egyptian warrior, after he is sentenced to death for betraying his country.
At Masada, a huge stage was dominated by a Pharaonic statue. The open venue allowed American soprano Kristine Lewis who sang the title role to exit a scene on the back of a camel.
Israel Opera director Hanna Munitz said some 3,000 visitors from abroad bought tickets to the 12-day festival that began on June 1.
"(Had it not been for events in) Egypt, Libya and Syria, I think we could have had even more tourists coming from all over the world," Munitz said, referring to uprisings that have made the region appear more dangerous to visitors.
An Israeli Tourism Ministry spokeswoman said the number was down from some 4,000 who visited last year. The festival also includes a performance of another Verdi opera, Jerusalem, close to the walls of its Old City.
Conductor Daniel Oren, an acclaimed performer of Italian opera, told Reuters the performances at Masada were "a miracle in the middle of the desert with ... the best singers in the world who perform at the Metropolitan (New York), in Vienna, in London."
Oren said that despite the technical shortcomings of Masada as a completely open-air site, it was a task worth pursuing because of the emotional ties with the venue.
"You cannot compare Masada even to the Arena di Verona which is a magical place where I conduct every year, but this is the most magical ... In Verona, the acoustics are there but here we have to create them with amplification," he explained.
Audience members at last week's dress rehearsal were impressed.
"It's a fabulous production. I think the word is 'dramatic', so much more than being inside. Just being here," said Aviva Lavi of Tel Aviv.
"It's a different experience. This is not an opera in La Scala or in New York's Met but it is a grand performance," said Ruben Shemer, who said he had seen many operas around the world.
Not all the reviews were positive. Critic Elyakim Yaron voiced disappointment that a "brilliant opera with incredible potential for theater should be performed on such a giant, empty stage."
Previous cultural events have been held at Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage site and for decades a source of archaeological fascination, but the opera festival is the most ambitious musical project there to date.
Additional reporting by Rinat Harash