Letter from Thessaloniki

George Papandreou could be a true tragic figure. The leader of PASOK and the main opposition party leader, Papandreou is often torn between his sense of duty and his own human needs – to enjoy life, to work out, to love and be loved. You could say he is tortured by the existential and metaphysical concerns of the very human Jesus presented in «The Last Temptation of Christ,» the novel by Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis. In the book, the Christ figure is not the Almighty but a passionate and emotional human being who is subject to doubts, fear and even guilt. He is a genuine son of man who has been assigned a mission and ultimately sacrifices himself for it. He is an unfortunate figure who ends up sacrificing his human hopes for a wider cause. Does this remind anyone of George Papandreou? First, let me digress to include in this discussion another Christ-figure scenario, again inspired by Kazantzakis. The novelist also wrote «The Greek Passion,» a book which inspired an opera by the same name by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu in 1957. The opera opened for the first time in Greece last Friday in an open-air production in Eptapyrgio, a former prison until 1989 and on the top of Kastra, or Thessaloniki’s city walls. It was masterminded by the formidable and indefatigable Ioanna Manoledaki, after our new Ministry of Culture relieved her from her duties, and the board of directors for the Thessaloniki Opera. Unfortunately, there was no prelude of publicity to the excellent performance. There were very few posters for the event in the city, and I myself asked several times for photos. The press office of the State Theater of Northern Greece simply ignored me. For some residents of Thessaloniki, this event was much more important that the debate over the government vote of confidence in Parliament that began hours before in Athens. The opera’s plot unfolds like this. On an Easter Sunday, the elders of a small and overfed village in Crete are staging their annual passion play depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. They carefully choose the actors for the key roles of Jesus, Mary, Magdalene and the Apostles. Manolios is a shepherd chosen to be Jesus because of his gentle looks. He is inspired to prepare for this honor by living a life that will bring him closer to his character. But then a band of refugees from another village, who have been run out by Turks, enter the scene. The elders fear their corrupting influence but Manolios as the Christ character articulates the Christian moral code that instructs the villagers to embrace all people, share their wealth fully, and treat everyone equally. The contradiction between the words of Christ, and the actions of those who claim leadership leads to various accusations of treason. Manolios, whose political philosophy is not very clear and undoubtedly suspect, is then re-crucified. So, what does this story – in both the novel and the opera – mean in our modern world of politics? Is it offering a view of libertarian socialism, libertarian communism, or some kind of moderate social democratism? The novel has several references to Bolshevism. Also, the gunpowder priest Fotis – a sort of John the Baptist figure (excellently portrayed and sung in the opera by Fillipos Vazakas) – combines the characteristics of the Orthodox ascetic with those of a fiery Che Guevara. We know that Kazantzakis, who never joined the communist party, sympathized with leftist movements in his early life and later was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. Several of the author’s novels deal with the mystical relationship between man and God. Consider this passage, an excerpt of a letter from Kazantzakis to his wife, Helen. «Having seen that I was not capable of using all my resources in political action, I returned to my literary activity,» he told his wife. «There lay the battlefield suited to my temperament. I wanted to make my novels the extension of my own father’s struggle for liberty. But gradually, as I kept deepening my responsibility as a writer, the human problem came to overshadow political and social questions. «All the political, social, and economic improvements, all the technical progress cannot have any regenerating significance, so long as our inner life remains as it is at present,» he wrote. «The more the intelligence unveils and violates the secrets of Nature, the more the danger increases and the heart shrinks.» Yet in our modern time, one cannot insist on labels. For example, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis has called George Papandreou a conservative because Karamanlis is trying to paint his opponent as someone who resists rapid change and supports traditional norms. Kazantzakis had always searched for the «revelation of truth.» So, too, is PASOK leader Papandreou, if one takes for truth what he said on Thursday – that PASOK would work hard during the censure vote debate «for the truth to be be revealed and for the government to give an account of the tragic course being followed by the country over the past 15 months.» Karamanlis is expected to survive the vote of confidence and further solidify his political power. But there is no getting away from the fact that opera, like politics, is a collaborative art. Opera singers and politicians alike – being used to long-windedness and incomprehensibility – are also accustomed to sharing the limelight with television cameras and the chronic murmurs about votes of confidence thrown in. This homecoming of Martinu’s «Greek Passion» in Thessaloniki featured music which sounded to my ears like a patchwork of disparate styles. It was sung for the first time in Greek, which accounted for its resounding success. It also featured imaginative production by Pamela Howard, the excellent choir of the Thessaloniki Opera and the orchestra of the National Opera of Timosoara. Working in the pit were Christian Gehreen and George Vayiannos. The opera was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the people of Thessaloniki.

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