ATHENS — As a native of Greece who has lived abroad for more than half of his life and attended most of his classical performances in music centers like New York and Vienna, this writer always gets a particular feeling being back in Athens and experiencing the intimacy of Greek musical institutions.
The organization that has made the most international headlines in recent years is undoubtedly the Greek National Opera, whose spectacular modern building, designed by Renzo Piano, near the coast in the south of the city was inaugurated in 2017. It was clear from the first glance at the complex that this would be a game changer for the company, giving it the possibility of elevating its standing. Impressive from the very beginning of the era in the new venue were the efforts of artistic director Giorgos Koumentakis and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (which exclusively financed the new building and continues to support the company), with their outward-looking and encompassing vision of the institution and its integration into an international world with the cooperation of leading organizations. One of the most recent co-productions was 2023’s Medea, a collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera that was created to honor Maria Callas’ centennial on Dec. 2, 2023. As a 17-year-old, the Manhattan-born Callas, under her birth name Maria Kalogeropoulou, had made her operatic debut with the historic Greek company in 1940.
One of the most discussed productions of the Koumentakis era, which started just a few months before the move into the new venue, was Shostakovich’s masterpiece Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The piece served as a showcase for the new aspirations of both the Greek National Opera and the venue 23 years after the company’s first attempt at the work in 1996 featuring the renowned Greek soprano Katerina Ikonomou. The highly provocative, disturbing, and musically demanding piece was staged by Fanny Ardant, who said in her program notes that the opera remains relevant for our times and among the works of Shostakovich.
The production starts with two naked dancers entering the stage slowly, creating a sort of human vehicle resulting in an almost Bauschian creation of two angels with their wings interacting — meant to symbolize the angels of good and evil in human life. The scenery appears slightly underlit to correspond to the quite dark atmosphere of the opera, working at the beginning on two levels, where the ground floor is the farm and its surroundings, and the upper space is the room of the protagonist Katerina. Two scenes of confrontation between Katerina and another female, Aksinya, with what seems to be a herd of wild men and Sergey are masterfully choreographed. They reflected the abuse of women by the sheer bodily power of men mixed with elements of wild desires and raw sexuality.
This 2019 production was a great success and was brought back to the stage the fall of 2023 with another New York connection: The dramatic soprano Svetlana Sozdateleva sang the role of Katerina last season at the Met in Graham Vick’s 1994 production. As the main character of the opera, she balances between being a helpless victim and a hideous, even sadistic, murderess, and while both productions try to extract both sides, the Met’s view leans towards the second, while the Athenian one focuses on the first. In each production, the title role was superbly interpreted by Sozdateleva, who, with excellent technique and passion, was able to project the dynamic parts of the character while leaving room for the affectionate, melancholic, even desperate parts of a woman scorned by society and betrayed by love in the end.
Equal as her partner in passionate love and viscious crime was the tenor Sergey Seimishkur in the role of Sergey, whom he portrayed with interpretive harshness and vocal tenderness. Bass-baritone Yanni Yannissis was a dynamic and convincing Boris Timofeyevich Ismailov, playing a careful and strong traditional landlord and an oppressor of women. Also of note was tenor Yannis Christopoulos as a convincing Zinovi Borisovich Ismailov. Bass Tassos Apostolou and baritone Maxim Klonovsky, as the priest and the police sergeant, respectively, gave expression and voice to the ruthless Shostakovian irony. The “blasphemous” satire of the composer towards such state institutions as the police, traditional values, and the church — exhibited also in his first opera, The Nose, together with the other aspects of his work and his musical innovations — provoked Joseph Stalin to leave in the middle of a performance. As a result, given his fraught relationship to the Soviet regime, the composer made, despite his initial intentions, no other attempts in the genre other than revisiting the opera after the war and changing its name from Katerina Ismailova to Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk.
Soprano Sophia Kyanidou was brilliant as Aksinya in a choreography that fleshed out the attack by a group of men. Mezzo-soprano Marissia Papalexiou was vocally steady and convincing as Sonyetka, the fatal seductress and victim in the final act. Papalexiou and her fellow convict in the final scene, sung by soprano Maria Mitsopoulou, had smaller roles, though they have been distinguished members of the company for years, with many leading roles between them.
Another nostalgic note to the musical journey in Athens was rather personal. On the stage of the National Opera, I heard my high-school classmate (and from theatrical endeavors) tenor Babis Velissarios as the Second Foreman in the Shostakovich opera. Velissarios is a permanent member of the chorus and has also sung as a soloist while performing the music of Greek composers in Greece and abroad. Music is One, he insists, as he navigates his voice across different genres.
In 2023, his talent in folksinging brought him to Carnegie Hall to sing works by the legendary Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis (1925-2021), who developed a far-reaching folk style in touch with the Greek people, with lyrics by distinguished Greek poets, two of them recipients of the Nobel Prize. Velissarios, along with other distinguished musicians, brought these songs to life. With his operatic-classical training, he also was able to give a vigorous interpretation to the purposely classical-style song “Thelei Aretin kai Tolmin I Eleutheria” (Freedom Requires both Courage and Virtue) featuring lyrics by the Greek poet Andreas Kalvos (1792-1869). This proved to be the highlight of the evening. For Velissarios, Carnegie Hall was the apogee of his distinctive path from a small neighborhood in Athens and a public-school performance where his talent for music was first recognized.
Playing the score under conductor Fabrizio Ventura, the Greek National Opera orchestra was at its best in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The Italian conductor led a detailed reading with balance between all the forces and the well-prepared chorus, directed by Agathangelos Georgakatos. Components of the brass were placed in the side boxes, bringing the audience into the middle of Shostakovich’s dense, rapturous orchestral fabric and creating an ecstatic experience.
The acoustics of the Stavros Niarchos Hall are clear and generous, especially for the singers. The level of the orchestra can be adjusted so that the desired acoustics for each performance can be achieved easily. I did not have the opportunity to compare acoustics from another seat, and the Shostakovich opera may not have presented the best opportunity to test the fleeting impression that I was hearing less strings in a few instances.
In any case, the solo violin could be heard clearly with all its expressive qualities. The brilliant solo was played by a guest musician, Katerina Chatzinikolau, who started learning the violin in a small village in Northern Greece at the age of four. She completed her studies in Germany and is the newly appointed concertmaster of the Athens State Orchestra — the first woman to hold this position.
The improving sound of the Greek National Opera’s orchestra in the last 15 years is parallel to the other positive developments mentioned above. Many internationally trained musicians joined the ensemble, more productions were added, and cooperation with internationally acclaimed conductors intensified. As the repertoire expands with the new hall’s crystal clear (and unforgiving) acoustics, this will add even more confidence, precision, and cohesion to the orchestral sound as measured against the very high bar of international standards, helping the company to fulfill its most promising aspirations.
The next challenge for the company following the Shostakovich success comes in March, when it will present Wagner’s Die Walküre for the first time in its history. Director John Fulljames’ Athenian Valkyrie is a co-production between the Royal Danish Theatre and the Greek National Opera and will be conducted by Philippe Auguin.