Letter from Thessaloniki

In opera, as in politics, the presence of a powerful woman – preferably blonde – can compensate for a multitude of shortcomings. Take Thessaloniki: Two stunning blondes in their mid-20s – Elena Rapti of New Democracy and Eva Kaili of PASOK (both members of the city council) – have obliged the respective political parties to flirt openly with the idea of having them as candidates at the next general elections. Indeed, it would be preferable to keep those two gorgeous young blonde politicians in mind, rather than that recent poor-man’s, and horribly boring, Bucharest performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s «Aida,» which was recently shown at the Demetria Festival. This emblem of the grandest of grand operas failed to impress, thus depriving Thessaloniki music lovers of experiencing the thrilling event they had paid for. Some days later, «I Vespri Siciliani» (written around 1850) at the Athens Concert Hall was in nearly all respects a richly satisfying rendering of Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece of a grand opera. No comparison with Thessaloniki, as far as grand opera is concerned. Based on the historical uprising and massacres in Sicily in AD 1282 by Sicilians bent on ridding themselves of their French rulers, the story of this opera makes some unbelievable revelations (the French governor and a leader of the Sicilian patriots are in fact father and son) – but the music is wonderful. Staged by Nikos Petropoulos in grand opera old-fashioned grandeur, with a superb Eliane Coelho in the part of Duchess Elena (Portuguese-American Susan Neves will follow in this part on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday of this month), an impeccable Francesco Ellero D’Artegna, the stunning Slovene tenor Janez Lotric giving a constant impression of being in overdrive, all greatly helped by the conductor Donato Renzetti and backed by an impressive Bulgarian choir (instructed by Christo Kazantzieff), this opera proved to be a great musical event to open the season. Though it may be hard for some people to believe that filmmaker Nikos Koundouros (Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival in 1963) is the Giuseppe Verdi of visual extravaganzas, his production «Digenis Akritas and the Queen of the Amazons» at the Herod Atticus Theater last year was one of the most widely discussed productions of 2002. It is being repeated today, at the same venue at 8.30 p.m., and I will go and see it again. There are some good memories from last autumn. I still have in mind Koundouros’s carefully studied excess and the Amazon’s queen (Lisetta Kalimeri) swooning sentimentally, which played just like grand opera. Then, I remember Marisa Koch, worthy of romantic grand opera, floating her huge voice as if it were one with the orchestra. Extravagant and irrational Greek rocker Dionysis Tsaknis who plays Digenis, possessed – I am still speaking of last year’s production – a singing voice of suppressed quality that mocked the extravagant emotionalism and artifice of grand opera – just the right thing for this kind of production. With composers Manos Hadjidakis and Mikis Theodorakis just around the corner, Nikos Kypourgos composed the music and songs to «Digenis,» shamelessly anachronistic and nostalgic. Although based on Cretan music, which is famous for being unpredictable as it is based on rhythms that sound strange to foreign ears (in 7/8 and 9/8 tempos), there are time-melding and emotion-amplifying qualities in Kypourgos’s music that have the well-known qualities of grand opera. Now, the question is who was Digenis Akritas and what was the role of the Queen of Amazons – not to be confused with the American B-movie «Amazons» (1946), where a woman travels to the Hollywood jungle to search for her lost fiance only to find him shacked up with the jungle Queen of the Amazons – nor should it be confused with Amazon.com. As for Digenis himself, he was a border warrior twice over – of two races and two religions. The main hero of the epic was the son, so they say, of a Muslim Arab Emir («He was not black like the Ethiops, but fair…») and the Christian daughter of a Byzantine general of the Doukas family («a virgin still; she was the general’s daughter.»). There are many versions of «Digenis Akritas» and these do not all agree. Therefore, I imagine there would be one that involves an Amazon queen (a blonde one perhaps) that I personally have never heard of but Nikos Koundouros in all probability has. Based on an historical character who died around 788, this epic romance – close to Western European ones like the Spanish El Cid and the Italian Rolando Furioso – was popularized by those itinerant folk singers, the troubadours. Now as far as the reputation of the Amazons goes (for some just «girls gone wild» for others «all those baby dykes»), contrary to common belief that this ancient mythical bloodthirsty tribe of women detested males, in Koundouros’s version they have a queen who falls madly in love with Digenis. There is a good (at least it is as decent as it could possibly be) English translation of this epic, which clearly anticipates the Cretan romance «Erotokritos» (mid-17th century). The translation is by Denison Bingham Hull, a Harvard graduate and a trustee of the American Farm School in Thessaloniki. So we come full circle to the point from where we started.