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Opera Brings El Greco to Life in Athens

ATHENS – The remarkable life of the Cretan-born master painter El Greco was presented in the opera performed February 13-20 at the Megaron Mousikis – Athens Concert Hall. Tenor Dario Di Vietri and soprano Eleni Calenos led an excellent cast of Greek and international artists accompanied by the Novarte Orchestra and joined by the Fons Musicalis Choir. A creation of composer Giorgos Hatzinasios and libretist Ilias Liamis, with orchestration by Nikos Vasiliou, the music director and conductor, and directed by Angela-Kleopatra Saroglou, the opera was a co-production of the Megaron and Apollonian Enterprises.

The opera – an evocative blend of music and El Greco’s masterpieces, with sets conjuring his mysticism framing his lifelong quest for communion with God and the artistic expression of His light as well as El Greco’s human passions – is built on a foundation of fact and fiction, according to Saroglou.

The audience was thankful for the poetic license taken, because the poignant and philosophical story created for the opera brings Domenikos Theotokopoulos to life in a powerful way.

Precious little of his life is known and the three acts correspond to its major phases: birth and upbringing in his beloved Crete – in Heraklion under a brutal Venetian occupation, in Venice itself where his art was transformed and flowered, and in Toledo, which had just ceded its place as capital of Spain to Madrid but remained its religious capital. There he flourished, creating the images the world adores.

The libretto is built on the intuition that El Greco was in essence a seeker after the Divine Light and socially an outsider – as an Orthodox Christian he was a heretic in Western Europe, and as a revolutionary painter with spiritual aspirations – it was inevitable that he would clash with the art world and the Spanish Inquisition.

Tenor Dario Di Vietri as El Greco and soprano Eleni Calenos as Sophia (above) and Jerónima de las Cuevas thrilled the audience at the wonderful Megaron Mousikis in Athens. Photo: Stefanos Kyriakopoulos

Domenikos formed a symbolic triptych onstage with two other great Cretan figures, Nikos Kazantzakis (Dimitris Tiliakos) and the mythical Icarus (Ray Chenez), who created the wings that first enabled humans to fly. Icarus presented Domenikos with his life’s challenge as man and artist, ordering him to resist three temptations: glory, wealth, and power – but each rejection threatened expulsion from the places he loved.
Indeed, the story begins with an exile: The Venetian Tyrant Molino, performed by Deyan Vatchkov, was angry El Greco helped his daughter Sophia elope with Domenikos’ friend Pietro (Mihalis Psiras). Molino made Domenikos an offer of wealth he couldn’t refuse – but he did, and fled to Venice exclaiming, “Farewell Crete!”

As a disciple of the great Venetian artist Titian (also Vatchkov), Domenikos went to Rome – but he couldn’t help criticizing the even greater Michaelangelo, so he left for Spain, trading glory for safety and artistic freedom – freedom, a theme permeating the opera.

In Rome, he again meets Sophia, who sought refuge in a convent from tragic developments on Crete. Fatally ill, she heard Domenikos proclaim – “my love for you was a cry drowned in silence.” She died in his arms beneath El Greco’s painting of Golgotha, but the blue and white sky hints at the Resurrection as the heart-rending duet of Calenos and Di Vietri climaxes with his cry: “I will find you again… in the place where eyes do not shed tears… Where death cannot touch us.”

In Spain, El Greco finds acclaim and love… and again, loss. His beloved brother Manolios found the tip of a sword intended for Domenikos, thrust by the outraged father of his lover and mother of his child, Jerónima de las Cuevas, portrayed by Calenos. Her two roles were a revelation, unveiling a purity of voice contrasting the more passionate roles she is known for – one fan’s piercing whistle prompting her Athens fans to clap even louder.

Darker stage lighting and musical tones announce the Spanish Inquisition, whose unholy fathers rendered judgement spiritual and artistic: “you gave wings to bodies we had tied down, filled angels with flames and light… and made their wings too large.”

Then, however, another offer he couldn’t refuse: “Join us, and you will have wealth and power,” but Domenikos replied: “If I accept it, the heavens close to me forever… so I say to you: ‘Oxi.’”

The admirable and beautifully orchestrated score fulfilled its role for music drama. Rather than generate ‘showtunes’ for the audience to hum on the way home – with the exception of the stirring ending – Hatzinasios’ music provided a foundation for the sublime words and deeds of the story, pointing the actions onstage to the divine heights the great artist, renowned for his spectacular use color and light, sought throughout his life.

Driving the action to a musical climax that is Hatsinasios’ own hymn to freedom, Domenikos declared to the fathers of the Inquisition, “Freedom is the will of God” and then perhaps to God himself: “my obligation I do not abandon even for a moment.” Kazantzakis appears, closing the opera declaiming: “Time takes our bodies – but our art is eternal.”


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