Many years ago, when she was made an honorary citizen of Athens, the classical scholar Edith Hamilton turned to her audience, sitting on the stone steps of the ancient theatre of Herodes Atticus on the slopes of the Acropolis, and declared, “We are all citizens of Athens.”
And so we surely are. With all due respect to the achievements of older societies in Mesopotamia and Egypt, it is a small city state on the shores of the Mediterranean that we honour today as the fountainhead of western civilization.
But that was more than 2,000 years ago. What, you may ask, have the Greeks done for us lately, other than fill the pages of our newspapers with bad economic news?
Quite a bit, as it happens. Culturally speaking, traffic-filled, pollution-prone Athens is a city that was transformed by preparations for the 2004 Olympic Games, with an efficient subway system now making life easier for citizens and visitors alike.
My previous visit took place well over a quarter of a century ago when I attended the Athens Epidaurus Festival to see Rudolf Nureyev dance “Manfred” with the Zurich Opera Ballet.
This time, earlier this month, I was drawn not only by the usual tourist magnets of the Parthenon and kindred stately ruins, but by the opportunity to visit one of the handsomest new cultural complexes in western Europe, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre, and attend not one but two Greek operas: a children’s opera, “The Magic Pillows” by George Dousis, and more importantly, an adult opera, “The Murderess” by Giorgos Koumendakis.
Like the new opera house in Copenhagen, Athens’ new home for opera is the gift to his native country of a single self-made multimillionaire (sometimes known as the one who didn’t marry Jacqueline Kennedy).
And what a gift Stavros Niarchos has posthumously given! The Italian architect Renzo Piano’s conservatively modernist structure houses the National Library as well as the 1,400-seat Niarchos Hall and a 700-seat theatre.
The smaller theatre, where I attended a concert of songs by Mikis Theodorakis, happens to be the same size as the former home of the Greek National Opera, the Olympia Theatre, where Maria Callas sang following graduation from the Athens Conservatory.
Now called the Olympia Theatre Maria Callas, with Callas memorabilia proudly displayed, it is dwarfed by the opera company’s new home, a state-of-the-art facility the pit of whose larger house, Stavros Niarchos Hall, can accommodate a full Wagner orchestra.
The orchestra for Koumendakis’ “The Murderess” may have been less than Wagner-sized, but it was large and fully used to accompany one of the most successful productions in the recent history of Greek opera.
Not that the Greek National Opera itself is old by European standards, having been founded in 1939. It is still the only opera company in Greece but reportedly a far more substantial enterprise since the restoration of Greek democracy in 1974.
“The Murderess” was commissioned by the company, produced in 2014, revived in 2016 and revived yet again to ornament the stage of the new house, its composer now the company’s artistic director.
It is a thoroughly Greek work, its tragic story based on a 1903 novella by Alexandros Papadiamantis, popularly known as the saint of modern Greek literature, and available in English translation.
It tells the story of a demented widow who impulsively starts killing little girls, including her own granddaughter, as an act of mercy to save poor people from the daunting task of providing dowries for their eventual marriages.
Improbable? Less so in the context of the impoverished society the story portrays, as even today’s Greek audiences clearly appreciate.
It is a powerful story and it is powerfully told operatically. “The Murderess” is Koumendakis’ fifth opera, and his ability to write effectively for voices is evident throughout, in the several solo roles as well as in the passages for four different choruses, including a children’s chorus. Sometimes these vocal groups even function in a witnessing manner analogous to the choruses of the ancient Greek dramas.
One voice obviously dominates, that of “The Murderess” herself, and in the person of Greek-Canadian mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi the production boasts a singing actress equal to her assignment.
The score is basically tonal, with the chorus sometimes singing polyphonic dirges and the instrumental writing sometimes echoing traditional sources.
A work for the international stage? While it is difficult to imagine “The Murderess” resonating as strongly with non-Greek audiences, people are people and the emotions portrayed in Koumendakis’ opera ring true. In that sense, we all continue to be citizens of Athens.
CORRECTION — JAN. 2, 2022: An earlier version of this column incorrectly named the singer who performed the lead role in “The Murderess.”