By Alkis Karmpaliotis, High School Student, NYC
Founder of AppreciateOpera.org
Puccini by the Parthenon
Every summer, the Greek National Opera ends its season with a series of performances at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus – also known as the Herodion – an amphitheater in the Acropolis of Athens. The Herodion, built in 161 AD, is one of the most famous theaters in the world, with great singers such as Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras having performed there. The marble structure is located only a hectometer from the Parthenon and overlooks the entire city of Athens.
This year, the selected opera was Puccini's Tosca. The four performance dates were divided between two casts: Kristine Opolais, Ramon Vargas, and Dimitri Platanias on July 28 and 30; and Lianna Haroutounian, Giorgio Berrugi, and Tassis Christoyannis on July 29 and 31. I was scheduled to attend on July 30, but unfortunately, Opolais was unable to perform due to illness, so I instead went to the sold-out performance on July 31.
Tosca was Puccini’s first foray into verismo (Italian for realism, vero meaning “real”), the operatic genre marked by dramatic plots influenced by everyday life. While preparing the opera, in pursuit of a realistic plot, Puccini went so far as to seek out an expert in church bells to identify the exact sound of the bells used in Roman churches. He also obtained a suitable folk song for the shepherd in Act 3. Tosca is in many ways the perfect opera; it conjoins the elaborate leitmotif technique of Wagner, the breathtaking melodies of Bellini, the splendor of French grand opera, and the pure Italianate sound of Verdi, into one cohesive masterpiece.
This production of Tosca was conceptualized by acclaimed Argentine director Hugo de Ana, who is known for his grandiose sets and spectacular use of lights. In the center of the stage, there was a large statue of a cross similar to that in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Roman basilica in which Act 1 of Tosca takes place. Everything about the production, including the resplendent costumes which De Ana designed himself, was wonderful.
Combined with the Parthenon’s lights beaming from behind and the stars shining from above, this majestic staging made the scenery all the more picturesque.
Armenian Soprano Lianna Haroutounian has performed in major theaters all over the world, including the Royal Opera House and Teatro Real. Her performance on Sunday night was mesmerizing. She convincingly depicted the dramatic nature of Tosca’s character, from her desperate, jealous cries of “Mario! Mario! Mario!” in Act 1 to the famous finale, in which she flings herself off of the side of a building, proclaiming that she will “meet Scarpia before God”.
Haroutounian’s acting was particularly impressive in Act 2, when she perfectly exhibited Tosca’s pain and fear, hearing her lover’s moans as he was being tortured by Scarpia’s bloodhounds. Her voice was filled with hatred and fury as she shouted, “This is Tosca's kiss!” after stabbing Scarpia. As she sang the famed aria, “Vissi d’Arte”, one could almost visualize the waves of her dynamic vibrato drifting through the air, bouncing off of the Parthenon’s archaic columns and echoing across the Acropolis.
As soon as the lights went out, the audience broke out in applause and screams of “Bravo!”. When Haroutounian walked onto the stage to take her bow, it became clear that she had won the hearts of the demanding Athenian crowd – an impressive feat, indeed.
Giorgio Berrugi’s radiant voice and honeyed timbre have made him one of the finest Puccini tenors of today. He has sung roles such as Rodolfo in La Boheme and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly in theaters across the world, including the Semperoper Dresden and the Teatro la Fenice, so the spinto role of Mario Cavaradossi represents familiar territory for him.
Berrugi got off to a slow start vocally, sounding abnormally weary and faint in his rendition of the Act 1 romanza, “Recondita armonia”. By the middle of the act, however, Berrugi’s voice had fully warmed up, as he and Haroutounian displayed passionate chemistry in their love duet. Berrugi absolutely nailed the high-B-flat on “Ah, m’avvinci nei tuoi lacci,” supported by a stirring sforzando from the pit.
His “Vittoria!” cries in Act 2 were crisp and resonant, and the ensuing chaotic scene was electrifying. He wrapped up the night with a dark and melodic rendition of “E lucevan le stelle” that was met with almost a minute of well-deserved applause. His soft diminuendo on “le belle forme disciogliea dai veli” was reminiscent of Franco Corelli.
Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis was an ardent Scarpia, performing the role of the villainous police chief to perfection. At first, he was slightly wobbly in the lower register; however, the problem quickly fixed itself, and he was amazing throughout the rest of the night.
In the finale to Act 1, Christoyannis ferociously sang the lines “l’uno al capestro, l’altra fra le mie braccia” as conductor Phillipe Auguin wound up the orchestra in a furious crescendo, and the brilliant Chorus of the Greek National Opera powerfully sang the climax of the piece, looking up to the starlit sky as it sang the Te Deum prayer. Christoyannis and the chorus sang the final few bars in perfect unison before the act came to a close with a powerful repetition of the Scarpia motif by the brass.
Act 2 was a thrilling rush of intense emotions, tense and exciting from start to finish, with the orchestra and the singers in perfect harmony. Christoyannis embodied Scarpia's sadistic nature as he amorously howled "Spasms of hate? Spasms of love? What does it matter?" and "Oh, how you detest me! This is how I want you!"
Rounding Out the Night
The Orchestra of the Greek National Opera sounded magnificent all night, in large part due to the controlled and steady conducting of the brilliant Phillipe Auguin. At times, the brass was overly loud in traditionally warm and mellow moments, especially in the first act; with that being said, I was seated very close to the section – a possible explanation for the louder sound. The Children’s Chorus of the GNO was notably amazing as well.
Nothing, not even a disappointing performance, could have spoiled an evening at such a phenomenal venue – but this Tosca did the opposite, making my experience all the more memorable.