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Music: Attic Operatics

3 minute read

The theater was nearly 1,800 years old; Herodes Atticus, an Athenian philanthropist, had built it into the side of the Acropolis beneath Athens’ magnificent Parthenon. Many of its marble seats stayed unchipped over the centuries; others were replaced, and klieg lights were installed to light the way for modern theatergoers. One evening last week, as dusk settled over Attica’s brown hills, the moon over the amphitheater competed with the electric lights. An audience filled the 3,000 seats for a performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo, a rarely staged opera with an ancient Greek background.

From the first note the audience was captivated by music and action. The plot: Idomeneo, King of Crete, cannot face the terrible duty of sacrificing his own son to appease the sea god Poseidon, and decides to spirit him away. But the young man doubles Poseidon’s wrath by slaying one of his sea monsters, and Idomeneo realizes that he must go ahead with the sacrifice. When the boy’s faithful sweetheart Ilia insists on dying with him, the god relents, and the ending is happy. After the two-hour performance, the audience applauded for 15 solid minutes. Backstage, people swarmed to get a glimpse of the evening’s heroine, Metropolitan Opera Soprano Eleanor Steber, who sang Ilia. The Greeks had some words for her: “Htove docuiacVoia” (It was a miracle), and Trpocy Licx ev ‘iyca” (I’ve never seen anything like it!).

Idomeneo was only one attraction of Athens’ highly promising first festival of music and drama, featuring Greek artists in works with Greek themes. Highlights of the five-week program:

¶ Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, starring Met Mezzo-Soprano Rise Stevens as Orpheus.

¶ Stravinsky’s 1927 opera-oratorio, Oedipus Rex, preceded by Ernst Krenek’s three Medea monologues, sung by the Met’s Mezzo-Soprano Blanche Thebom.

¶ An appearance by the touring New York Philharmonic-Symphony under Athens-born Dimitri Mitropoulos, back home for the first time since World War II.

¶ Two classic Greek dramas staged by the Greek National Theater.

The man behind the festival is the Metropolitan Opera’s young (35) stage director, Dino Yannopoulos. Faced with a bankrupt opera company, an unenthusiastic government and a paltry $50,000 budget, Yannopoulos talked the Met stars into appearing for a fraction of their regular fees. A Greek shipowner undertook to transport the Philharmonic from Naples. Then, with only weeks to go, Yannopoulos settled down to the task of training the 96-voice chorus of Greeks to sing Italian. The results were spectacular, but Yannopoulos was not surprised. “This is the place where the chorus was born,” say-he. “It should be good.”

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