Honoring Callas At 100, Greek Opera Restages Her Signature ‘Medea’

Anna Pirozzi sings the title role in Cherubini’s ‘Medea’ at the Greek National Opera. (Photos by Andreas Simopoulos)

ATHENS — The title role in Luigi Cherubini’s Medea is synonymous with Maria Callas, who revived the opera from obscurity with a 1953 performance at the Maggio Musicale in Florence. Less known is the fact that the soprano, née Maria Kalogeropoulou, championed the score in Greece nearly a decade later at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus. The staging by Alexis Minotis — Callas’ director of choice — was only given two performances, in August 1961; the third performance was canceled because of rain.

Upon the singer’s centenary this year, the Greek National Opera (GNO) set out to make up for lost time with a new production of Medea mounted in collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera (where it was first seen in September 2022 ), Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Canadian Opera Company. The David McVicar staging arrived at GNO on April 25 and runs through May 9. Also coming up are a documentary about Callas’ Greek-period career (to be screened at the GNO on Dec. 2); a for-television recital featuring up-and-coming Greek singers; the educational workshop “Visualising the Voice of Maria Callas”; and more.

Maria Callas made a famous recording of ‘Medea’ led by Leonard Bernstein.

Since 2016, the GNO has made its home in the Stravros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, a 630-million-Euro complex designed by Renzo Piano that places the new opera house across from the national library. The exterior has a whiff of industrial chic, a monument to contemporary Europe and the company’s international aspirations, while the auditorium creates warmth with plush red textile and curved wooden balconies. There are no longer operatic performances in Epidaurus — where the snap of a finger sounds as if it were two feet away, even at the top of the steep rows of seats — although there is a summer program at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an outdoor theater alongside the Acropolis where Callas performed in 1957.

The soprano was born in New York City to Greek parents in 1923. Upon her parents’ divorce 14 years later, Callas moved with her mother to Athens, studying with Maria Trivella and then Elvira de Hidalgo at two different conservatories. She signed her first professional contract in 1940, with the GNO.

This phase of her life is not as well publicized as the glamorous but tragic years in Paris. Food was scarce during the war, and Callas’ mother became entangled with the German and Italian soldiers who occupied Athens. She also put pressure on the young soprano to bring in money through performances (recent books such as The Unknown Callas: The Greek Years, by Nicholas Petsalis-Diomidis, and Cast a Diva: The Hidden Life of Maria Callas, by Lyndsy Spence, go into further details.)

The Stravros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens

According to Vasilis Louras — creator of the forthcoming documentary Mary, Mariana, Maria – The Unsung Greek Years of Callas and the GNO’s head of communications — Callas was left disillusioned on other fronts. Already a fully formed prima donna at 20, she only faced scorn from other singers at the GNO and would depart full of disappointment in 1945. When she returned for a recital in 1957, the local media accused her of demanding too high a fee ($9,000, which was normal at the time), leading her to cancel one of two evenings.

Besides performances of Medea and Norma at Epidaurus in 1960-61, she would only visit Greece for vacation, most notably sailing around the islands with her lover, the shipping tycoon Aristotle Socrates Onassis. The new documentary will include an unknown recording from 1964, made when they arrived on the island of Levkada, close to Corfu, which gave rise to an impromptu performance from Cavalleria rusticana. According to Louras, it is one of the strongest recordings from the 1960s, when Callas’ voice was starting to show signs of wear and tear.

Yanni Yannissis portrays Creon in the Greek National Opera production of ‘Medea.’

The extent to which she channeled her tragic life experience and was willing to push her voice to dramatic extremes is of course what makes her performances legendary. Take, for example, the aria “Dei tuoi figli la madre” from Medea, a beloved number on compilations. If it seems impossible for a soprano to fill her shoes, Anna Pirozzi — the star of the GNO’s new production — rises to the task more than admirably.

As seen at the April 25 premiere, Pirozzi tackles the role of Medea with a combination of pathos, unflappable vocal stamina, and a round tone, to which she adds just the right amount of metal — at times evoking the edge Callas brought to her recordings while also maintaining a smoothness that was rare for “La Divina.” Pirozzi’s diction is also impeccable. In terms of volume, she was in another league from the other singers onstage.

To be sure, the rest of the cast was very strong. Yanni Yannissis was an authoritative Creon, with Nefeli Kotseli in plush voice as Medea’s attendant, Neris. Giorgio Berrugi made for an appropriately seductive, at times pathetic Giasone (although this side to his personality could have been played up). As Glauce, who is to marry Giasone, Vassiliki Karayanni was slightly underpowered but, standing upstage, warmed up to a fine performance.

Anna Pirozzi as Medea and Nefeli Kotseli as Neris

McVicar’s staging (revived by a team led by Jonathon Loy) allows the singers to focus on their craft. A giant mirror reflects the action in Creon’s palace, giving depth and urgency to the scenes. In the final act, projections that are timed with the music serve to recreate the opening storm and the flames that emerge from the temple after Medea has murdered her children.

The orchestra under Philippe Auguin was at its strongest in fleet, light passages but lacked dynamic range and tension in more dramatic moments. Cherubini’s 1797 score demands tremendous range from both singers and musicians as it absorbs everything from Mozart and Gluck to elements that anticipate grand opera. In a program note, Auguin mentions the possibility of approaching the music from a Baroque perspective, which may at least partially explain the orchestra’s often flat playing.

A scene from the Greek National Opera production of ‘Medea’

Nevertheless, the decisive factor in this tribute was the soprano, and Pirozzi justified the undertaking. It is heartening that the opera company where Callas made her start should draw attention to her history there as it places itself on the international map. A co-production with institutions in North America is also a natural move: The Medea in Epidaurus and a 1958 production in Dallas shared the same conductor, the Italian-American Nicola Rescigno, and 130 costumes were repurposed. This dimension — as well as the connections to her later years in Paris and Italy — could be emphasized even more as we revisit what made Callas the 20th century’s most influential soprano.