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LYSISTRATA in the magazine OPERA

Scene from LYSISTRATA (Photo: Guy Wagner)
Athens - The run-up to the 2004 Olympics in Athens is well under way, with a Cultural Olympiad playing a major part over the next couple of years. Opera may not be among the arts in which Greece has enjoyed gold-medal successes in the past, but that is no reason not to include it now: the premiere of a new operatic version by Mikis Theodorakis of Aristophanes’s bawdy comedy Lysistrata is one of the prime events and was a big popular success when it opened at the MEGARON, the Athens concert hall, in April.

Theodorakis was the obvious composer to choose for such a prestigious national occasion. His name is recognized abroad thanks to his toe-tapping music for the film Zorba the Greek, while at home he is respected as a composer of symphonies and a flag-bearer for the revival of Greek culture, notably for his opposition to the military junta in the late 1960s. The invitation to compose an opera for the Cultural Olympiad was timely. Having already composed three operas on classical Greek tragedies, Theodorakis saw an opportunity to follow ancient tradition and round off his trilogy with the customary comedy. Where better to turn than Aristophanes? Lysistrata— the story of how the women of Greece go on strike and refuse sex to their menfolk until they stop the fighting in the Peloponnesian War—is the raciest of his comedies and still fairly fruity even in today’s moral climate.

It is hard to imagine what sort of music might fit classic Aristophanes couplets such as ‘So how are things in Sparta?’ ‘Hard and upraised!’, but the gooey lyricism that underpins several of the scenes in the opera would not be an obvious choice.

Theodorakis’s music flits across the popular end of the musical spectrum—a hummable melody here, a vigorous Greek folk dance there, a compère with a touch of Lloyd Webber about him, and a final ensemble based on a repetitive rhythm that proves Ravel’s Bolero could work equally well with a chorus. None of it feels specific to the bawdy wit of this play in the way that, say, Verdi’s Falstaff does to Shakespeare. But Theodorakis does plumb one important sentiment: there is a bighearted sense of a communal experience about his opera, right for a play about a shared desire for peace and unity, right too for a Cultural Olympiad. The capacity audience sensed that and joined in the spirit wholeheartedly.

Two casts shared the performances. The ‘second’ cast on April 19 was the younger and more unbuttoned, according to local reports. Julia Souglakou sang Lysistrata, ringleader of the ancient world’s band of suffragettes; Mata Katsuli’s Myrrhine was the wife who taunts her husband in one of Aristophanes’s sauciest scenes; and Dimitris Sigalos as the Magistrate stood up for the male sex in more senses than one.

By the second half most of the men were equipped with outsized erect appendages.
It was just bad luck for one of the Spartan envoys when his accidentally fell off.
Even when the score veered in the direction of conventional opera, George Michailidis’s production stayed strictly in the realm of musical comedy. The conductor, Vassilis Christopoulos, gave the performance plenty of uplift, but it was a shame that the voices were amplified. The Megaron, recently built and handsomely equipped, doubles as a fine opera house and could presumably do without.


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