Letter from Thessaloniki

In this country, where customarily top political luminaries (i.e. the prime minister, the leader of the opposition, the foreign minister etc.) carry illustrious family names (i.e. Karamanlis, Papandreou, Mitsotakis and so on), it makes sense that the young diva with the fine voice, who played Mimi in Puccini’s «La Boheme» in Thessaloniki on Saturday also carried a big name. In fact, Montserrat Marti (Montsita), is a soprano – just like her mother, Montserrat Caballe, one of the greatest sopranos of the 20th century. The proud mother – resplendent in a red gown and wrap – applauded her daughter from the second row of the Theater of the Society for Macedonian Studies, opposite the city’s emblem, the White Tower. «La Boheme» opened the opera season in the city. It was the first production of the Opera of Thessaloniki under the new artistic direction of baritone Giannis Giannisis – I remember him as Menelaus of Sparta in Thanos Mikroutsikos’s unfortunate «Helen’s Return,» a libretto by Christos Lambrakis.  Although white-tie is certainly not de rigueur for opera opening nights in this city (I saw some younger people wearing black leather instead), it was certainly a gala performance all the same. The fete drew the city’s glitterati, philanthropists, politicos, local musical artists as well as real diplomats and fake ones – that is, numerous honorary local consuls. And, oh yes, although the Municipal Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Myron Michailidis performed admirably, the usually dashing Mayor Vassilis Papageorgopoulos was not present. Nor were any icy buckets of champagne waiting at the intermission. Perhaps they saved it for the reception after the performance, to which I was not invited, therefore I wouldn’t know. The opera was performed exactly as scored, except for the fact that it was – almost – successfully relocated from an 1840 Paris attic to a contemporary loft that can be found anywhere. Sure enough, the decrepit garret just above the rooftops of Paris shared by four artistic types has now grown as big as an aircraft hangar. And as for the local Cafe Momus, a place of boisterous drinking in the second act, it has now been relocated to a tiny trailer home. The sets were by Sotiris Stelios. The colorful costumes of the modern Bohemian characters – by Alexia Theodorakis – contrasted with the monochromatic set, which was rather helpful. Being the gourmet city par excellence in Greece, Thessaloniki is also known as the city of pastry, and La Boheme’s so intensely sugary music has been rightly blamed for the incredibly large number of cases of hyperglycemia among local music lovers. Alexandros Euclides, who directed, didn’t hurt either. Surtitles helped those who don’t speak Italian. It was probably the buzz about the Monserrats – both of them – that resulted in the full house, although the good folk of Thessaloniki have long demonstrated their passion for lyrical theatre. «La Boheme» had already been performed in Thessaloniki prior to its liberation in 1912, on November 21, 1905, by the «Greek Melodrama» of Dionysios Lavrangas who visited the then Ottoman city from Athens. And just for the record, in one of her first appearances, La Divina, that is Maria Callas, sang under the name of Kalogeropoulou at the Royal Theater back in July of 1940. At the time she was in the choir of the Greek National Opera – just «one of the girls» in Strauss’s «Die Fledermaus.» The truly remarkable aspect of the tale of «La Boheme,» seems to be the timeless quality of the story. Poor artists suffering. While this is hardly a new idea, it is consistently popular because artists exist to comment on the world and its inner workings. Meanwhile, a walkout of actors and technicians at the National Theater of Northern Greece have kept all of its five stages closed for an indefinite period. As Rodolfo, the American Richard Leech is a beefily handsome tenor whose voice soars with spine-tingling fortitude. He was the star of this performance. Since he has once been described in the US press as «a national treasure,» it was only natural that the US Consul General in Thessaloniki, Hoyt Brian Yee, would be there to congratulate such an eminent artist from back home. As for Mimi – described in the Italian libretto as a «gaia floraia,» which does not necessarily mean «gay florist,» but rather a young girl whose job is to embroider flowers onto silk – Monserrat Marti, who will sing again on February 3 and 5, gave a tremendously moving and convincing rendition as the tragic tuberculosis victim. She was perfectly matched for musicality with the feckless flirt Musetta, played by Irini Karayianni, a standout performer. In act 4 Mimi, once again in the attic – rather, in the vast hangar – first lapses into unconsciousness and then dies. Poverty-stricken poet Rodolfo cries out Mimi’s name in anguish and weeps helplessly. The End. A tragic ending indeed. But you don’t go to opera for a happy ending, do you? You go for soaring music and big emotions. In works like «Tosca,» «Madama Butterfly» and «La Traviata» I can hardly conceal a tear. Up to now it has happened less in «La Boheme.»

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