Monday, July 26, 2021

DEAR RITA - REVIEW OF CHARLOTTETOWN FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Charlottetown Festival is back, albeit in a pandemic-modified format. It features three productions with emphasis on eastern Canada. The first production was Between Breaths a play by Robert Chafe about the controversial life of Dr. Jon Lien, a Newfoundlander credited with rescuing more than 500 whales trapped in fishing nets. It ran util June 19, 2021.

The second production, reviewed here, is Dear Rita, a tribute to the great Canadian singer. The next production will be Old Stock by Hannah Moscovitch, Christian Barry and Ben Caplan about Jewish refugees from Russia. It will run from August 12 to September 4, 2021.

The beautiful theatre in the Confederation Centre of the Arts can seat 1100 people but only 300 were allowed in observance of strict social distancing and other Covid related rules. The small number did not dampen the enthusiasm of the audience.


Dear Rita is appropriately subtitled as “A Musical Toast to Rita MacNeil” who the program describes as “one of the East Coast’s fiercest and most iconic songwriters.” MacNeil (1944-2013) wrote several hundred songs and produced 25 albums in a career that garnered a cartload of awards and honours, and made her hugely popular. She also led a varied and eventful life that the show alludes to without hesitation.

Lyndsay Kyte as playwright and Mike Ross as co-creator, music director and arranger have crafted a program that pays tribute to MacNeil’s wide-ranging musical contribution a well as her life. A company of eight actors, singers and musicians are tasked with presenting the program with sufficient enthusiasm and pathos as to be rewarded with a standing ovation by the reduced audience.

The four women of the cast, Michelle Bouey, Kristi Hansen, Melissa Mackenzie, and Lindsay Kyte, and four men, Sheldon Elter, and Brendan Wall with Chris Corrigan on guitar and Trevor Grant on drums, showed acting versatility, musical talent and reasonable vocal ability. The songs are sung by cast members individually and as an ensemble.

“Working Man,” a tribute to Nova Scotia coal miners “Flying on Your Own” about the strength she showed after leaving her husband, her love letter to Cape Breton “I'll see you again” and many more give a fine accounting of her varied talents in folk and country music and as references to her life.

Born in 1944 on Cape Breton Island with a cleft lip and palate, she had to suffer the worst insult that can be targeted in a small community: being “different.” She was sexually abused for years by the calloused hands of a great-uncle. She kept the abuse secret until she revealed it in her 1998 autobiography On A Personal Note.

She eventually gravitated toward Toronto more than once where she kept some menial jobs, became pregnant and had an out of wedlock daughter. She returned to Cape Breton but the desire to sing proved powerful and she left her child with her parents. Back in Toronto she got married, had a second child and even tried farming. But she could not stay away from singing and writing songs for long.

The play mentions her attempted suicide when she took a bottle of sleeping pills and her little son stood by her all night. She woke up 24 hours later and found pizza crumbs near her. Worse was to come in her battle with obesity. She reached 186 pounds and received some disgusting comments about it. The all-time low was reached during the 1993 World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Blue Jays where MacNeil sang the national anthem during one game. A Philadelphia newspaper suggested that she should get a forklift to transport her to home plate among other despicable comments.

We learn that there were numerous such insults in the media, but she seemed to take them with aplomb. When a journalist asked her if she was “a dish” when she weighed 113 pounds, she retorted that she is still a dish and asked if he was no longer a dish after he lost his hair.

Rita MacNeil had a big and resonant voice and she performed powerfully and movingly. The cast, admirably directed by Mary Francis Moore, captures much of her musical and personal life and, to their great credit, entertain us and make us want to go back to the original.

__________

Dear Rita by Lyndsay Kyte and Mike Ross plays from June 19 to August 6, 2021, at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, 145 Richmond Street, Charlottetown, PE C1A 1J1 https://confederationcentre.com/

James Karas is the Senior Editor – Culture of The Greek Press. This review appeared initially in the newspaper

Saturday, July 10, 2021

THE GREEKS IN THE WATERGATE SCANDAL


The Greek Connection

The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and
the Untold Story of Watergate
by James H. Barron
482 pp. Melville House Publishing, 2020
ISBN 978 1 612198266


Reviewed by James Karas

James H. Barron, like all good writers, starts The Greek Connection with a startling assertion that the 1968 presidential elections were won by Richard Nixon because of the illegal funnelling of $549,000 (almost $4 million in today’s money) from Greece. The money was given to the Greek equivalent of the CIA by the American Central Intelligence Agency as aid to Greece. Then it was probably laundered and delivered to the Nixon campaign. The disclosure of this fact may have made all the difference in the election and Hubert Humphrey may have become President instead of Tricky Dicky.
 
Barron is a journalist and lawyer who wanted to investigate the Greek gift to Nixon’s campaign and was advised to contact Elias Demetracopoulos. That was in 2009 and almost ten years of research and writing has resulted in The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and The Untold Story of Watergate.
 

It is a riveting book that has a full-blown and well-deserved biography of Demetracopoulos but it contains much more than that. It gives an astonishing glimpse intο American policy towards Greece in the latter part of the 20th century and a portrait of corruption, lies, vilification, skulduggery and pernicious conduct on a scale that I can only describe as jaw-dropping.
 
It contains a fairly detailed history of Greece from the 1930’s onwards and especially during the regime of the military junta (1967 to 1974). Demetracopoulos spent much of his professional life in the U.S. and there are details of American politics notably about America’s relations with Greece and, of course, “the Greek connection” to the Watergate scandal.
 
Demetracopoulos is not exactly a household name in the United States and I am not sure how well he is known in Greece. Born in Athens in 1929, he achieved distinctions early in his life. He joined a small resistance group and became the youngest person to be imprisoned and brutalized by the occupying Nazis in 1943 at the age 14. He may well have been executed but through family connections he was declared mentally ill, transferred to a psychiatric hospital and survived. But a record of his “mental illness” remained.
 
After the end of the Greek Civil War, Demetracopoulos received medals and commendations for his heroism and more importantly a job as a diplomatic correspondent at Kathimerini, perhaps the best newspaper in Greece, and was assigned to cover the omnipresent Americans in Athens. His life as a journalist began in earnest. 
 
His focus on the American embassy which was practically running the country made enemies quickly. He was good at what he was doing and Ambassador John Peurifoy and CIA Chief of the Athens Station Thomas Karamessines pressed him to become a CIA informer. On his first visit to the U.S., he was pressured to do the same. He refused opening the door for retaliation.
 
Demetracopoulos displayed his amazing talent for getting interviews with highly placed politicians and ranking officers. His articles were well publicised and he seemed to know more than the embassy. The Ambassador was displeased and he began a campaign to neutralize Demetracopoulos by suggesting that his Washington interviews were “fabricated.” The embassy put out word that his war record was phoney and that he was an impostor. They disputed the presentation of awards for his war services and began the vicious campaign that was to follow Demetracopoulos throughout his life. The evidence or lack of it meant nothing; corrections and denials meant little and the lies and fabrications were simply rehashed with shameless regularity. He had the American Embassy in Greece, the State Department, the White House and the CIA pursuing him doggedly with grotesque lies. At times they did little harm; at other times they cost him jobs and did real harm.
 
But Demetracopoulos had friends as well. Senators, Congressmen, and other highly placed officials were on his side. As an example, he tried desperately to get a visa to go to Greece to see his dying father. The junta apparently stalled but made plans to abduct and assassinate him. Senator Ted Kennedy got wind of the plot and advised Demetracopoulos not to go.
 
The focal point of the book is Demetracopoulos’s career in the U.S., where he arrived in 1967, following his escape from the Greek dictators.  He became a relentless enemy of the Greek dictatorship and the most unyielding and effective advocate for the return of democracy in Greece. He had dedicated enemies who tried to destroy him and committed friends who helped him.
 
He lobbied for the cessation of American arms to Greece and met with limited success. He thought he could rely on Vice President Spiro Agnew for support. In November 1967 he met with the then governor of Maryland to enlist his support against the junta in general and the sale of arms to Greece in particular.  Agnew told him that he could not publicly oppose the junta for “political reasons” but that he would remain neutral. He did not and became an ardent supporter of the dictators.
 
The treatment that Demetracopoulos got from Americans of Greek descent is simply astounding. Not only did the Greek American leaders support the junta, but they also did all they could to malign him. Sam Nakis, the Supreme President of the American-Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) called Demetracopoulos a “self-proclaimed expatriate . . . whose profession of idealistic motivation is extremely suspect.” Nakis left AHEPA AND became vice chairman of Democrats for Nixon. John Rousakis, the Democratic mayor of Savannah called him “an obscure Greek communist journalist”. Greek newspapers across the country supported the colonels and maligned Demetracopoulos. 
 
Enter Tom Pappas, an astute businessman and loyal conservative Republican, viewed as a generous philanthropist and supporter of Greek Americans. According to Barron, Pappas was judged by others as “a manipulative, ruthless, and cunning operator, a braggart, robber baron, an amoral or immoral power-hungry narcissist.” He brought Coca-Cola to Greece as well as Esso which became Esso-Pappas. “I had to bribe four governments in five years to get the [Esso-Pappas] deal going” he bragged. He was a supporter and friend of Nixon and of the Greek colonels.
 
The scenario that Barron paints is that the Nixon campaign needed money in cash in $1000 denominations. The source would be the American CIA giving the money to the Greek CIA which would then give it to Pappas’s charitable foundation which would funnel the cash to the Nixon campaign. The facilitator was Tom Pappas. The sum of $549,000 in large denominations was too much even for the Central Bank of Greece and it had to be divided in three tranches for delivery. It was and the cash was delivered by Pappas to the Nixon campaign. The evidence of American money being laundered and recycled through the CIA into the Nixon campaign is convincing if circumstantial.
 
Demetracopoulos made the crucial decision not to pass the story to other journalists or Senators and Congressmen. He decided to give the story to President Lyndon Johnson in the expectation that he would make further and urgent enquiries and make sure that story came out. Johnson declined to do anything. Demetracopoulos had made a fatal miscalculation in not publishing the story himself and passing it on to other outlets.
 
Barron asserts that disclosure of the transfer of funds from Greece to the Nixon campaign via Tom Pappas may have been a decisive factor in the election and in the very tight race of 1968 there was a probability that Hubert Humphrey would have been elected. He was not. Demetracopoulos continued his lobbying as did relentless and even more exaggerated efforts to smear his reputation and find evidence that he was a Communist, someone in the pay of other countries and whatever the imagination could devise and despicable conduct by individuals and government agencies perpetrate.
 
On Sunday June 17, 1972, the infamous Watergate break-in in the Democratic National Committee occurred and eventually set in motion proceedings that resulted in numerous convictions and the forced resignation of Nixon. The Republicans using threats and other nefarious practices were able to prevent the break-in from becoming an issue in the November elections and Nixon was re-elected. Demetracopoulos cooperated with George McGovern’s campaign and got a promise of help for Greece but it was to no avail.
 
The investigation into the break-in continued after the election and Nixon made great efforts to protect his good friend Tom Pappas from any criminal liability. But Nixon’s cronies needed a million dollars in cash for the burglars and raising it was very difficult. The circumstantial evidence is that they could rely on Tom Pappas.
 
Tom Pappas escaped from any prosecution. All attempts to destroy Demetracopoulos failed, but they were partly successful. He was eventually vindicated and remains the greatest adversary of the junta outside of Greece and the greatest advocate for the restoration of democracy during the dictatorship.
 
Barron’s book shows meticulous research on every page and reads like a thriller even for events that one is familiar with. Demetracopoulos died in 2016 and Barron’s biography is a fitting monument to him.  

Thursday, June 3, 2021

THE RESURRECTION – REVIEW OF OPERA ATELIER PRODUCTION

 Reviewed by James Karas

What would you have opposed to you - the Pope or a pandemic? You are not likely to have both against you at the same time. But if you were in the business of producing operas in 1708 or 2021, you were fated to meet one of them. The 23-year George Frideric Handel  composed The Resurrection, a sacred drama, and planned to have it produced on Easter Sunday and Monday 1708 for obvious reasons considering the title of the work.

The Pope said no because producing a work for the theatre, even a sacred piece, during Lent or Easter was a no-no. When you have a problem, you can curse Fate or look for a solution. In 1708 the solution was provided by the Marquis Francesco Ruspoli and the oratorio was produced in his palace in Rome.

Skip more than three centuries and you have Opera Atelier wanting to produce The Resurrection in Toronto. In 2021 there is no Pope to put a kibosh on the plans of Atelier’s Co-artistic Directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, to produce an oratorio but Covid-19 can and does. But just as Handel found a solution in 1708, Opera Atelier found a solution and produced the work in 2021 and  has made it available for all to stream in their homes.

Carla Huhtanen (angel) and Douglas Williams (Lucifer) in The Resurrection. Photo: Bruce Zinger

The action was filmed in the Ballroom of the St. Lawrence Hall and the audio was recorded in Koerner Hall, Toronto. The result is a splendid rendition of an infrequently seen work with superb singing enhanced by a marvelous ballet choreographed by Ms Lajeunesse Zingg and performed by the Artists of Atelier Ballet.

After the death of Christ, an Angel demands from Lucifer the opening of the gates of hell in anticipation of His resurrection and conquest of death. After that The Resurrection is faithful to its title and tells the story of Mary Magdalen’s and Mary Cleophas’s mourning for the death of Christ and the reassurance of St. John that He will rise. The duel with Lucifer continues but he is soundly defeated and sent back to hell while the women reach the empty tomb and the chorus sings the gorgeous “Let praises sound on Heaven and Earth.”

The Resurrection may well have one of the most captivating and rapturous opening arias. The Angel sung incomparably by soprano Carla Huhtanen demands from Lucifer to open the gates of hell and let in the radiance of God. The aria sounds as difficult to sing as it is beautiful. Huhtanen manages all the scales and all the demands of the role with the utmost agility and mesmerizing beauty.         

Meghan Lindsay is the grieving Magdalene and Allyson McHardy as Cleophas is her comforting companion and both display vocal virtuosity and emotional depth as they go from the depths of mourning to religious ecstasy. Tenor Colin Ainsworth sang a superb St. John. He displayed reverence and assurance as the man who knew of the coming of the Resurrection. Bass-baritone Douglas Williams has the role of Lucifer. I am not sure about his ability to handle the vocal requirements of a baroque piece. He has done well in Mozart roles but his voice seemed to lack the suppleness to do Lucifer.

The choreography was stunning as we have come to expect. The men and women are all dressed in white (they are on the side of the good guys) and armed with swords in the opening. They are fighting for the opening of the gates of Hell. In accordance with Covid-19 restrictions they wore masks but it is of no moment.

The women have beautiful modern gowns and there is no attempt to give a first century impression. Lucifer wears a green T-shirt and boots.

The lighting in St. Lawrence Hall seemed choppy, foggy at times, dark on occasion and I am not sure if it was light from the windows that caused the apparent problem.

David Fallis conducted  the Tafelmusik Orchestra.

I found the production outstanding and thoroughly enjoyable. The advantage of streaming is that you can watch it more than once. I watched it several times.    

_____________

The Resurrection by George Frideric Handel to a libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, directed by Marshall Pynkoski is being streamed for viewing until June 10, 2021. For more information go to: https://www.operaatelier.com/season-and-tickets/2020-2021-season/handel-the-resurrection-opera-atelier

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

THE GREEK WAR OF INDEPENDENCE AT 200: HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES

 

The Greek Revolution

A Critical Dictionary
Edited by Paschalis M. Kitromilides and
Constantinos Tsoukalas
770 pp. The Belknap Press, Harvard University Press. 2021
ISBN 9780674987432

 Reviewed by James Karas

The uprising that started in the Peloponnese in March 1821 and nine years later resulted in the establishment of a free Greek state is the most pivotal event in the history of the nation. Greek tenacity, incredible sacrifices, philhellenic fervour, Ottoman atrocities and, finally, foreign intervention resulted in the miracle of Greek independence in the face of incredible odds.

It was the first new nation to be created in 19th century Europe. It happened despite the initial and fervent opposition of the European powers who found it unwelcome and highly disturbing. For the Greeks it is part history, part mythology and the creator of the modern nation. Historical facts mixed with legends and myths over 200 years define the Greek nation, the patriotism of its people and to a large extent the Greek character.

Paschalis Kitromilides and Constantinos Tsoukalas, the editors of The Greek Revolution, have undertaken to provide extensive information on a broad range of topics pertaining to the war of independence. They wanted the topics that are covered by the writers to examine their subjects and make room for the reader to “use the topics covered as a foundation and entry into the event.” They want to give us reliable information and critical evaluation in an easily accessible dictionary form.

The editors are both professors emeriti of the University of Athens, Kitromilides of Political Science and Tsoukalas of Sociology. They have engaged the services of 39 scholars in various fields to write essays on the topics that the editors chose, and the hefty tome contains detailed information about unexpected topics that can usually be found in a book that has adopted the form of a dictionary. As such this is not a narrative history of The Greek War of Independence but a gold mine of information about some obvious and some unexpected subjects.

Space will not permit me to comment even on a reasonable number let alone all of the essays. The book covers the fundamentals of a revolution: warfare, politics, civil war, diplomacy and eventually independence. It begins with the the situation in the Balkans, the Greeks of the Diaspora and the homeland, all within the the world of the Ottoman Empire.

Some essays are less comprehensible to the general reader than others. Professor Vaso Seirinidou’s essay on Communities begins as follows: “The Greek Revolution established new contexts for the historical study of the experience of Greeks within structures of communities.” She gives two approaches to the historiographic view of communities which would be of interest to specialists and then tells us that her “essay offers a critical approach to this historiographic “antinomy” by examining various versions of the phenomenon.” Her essay would do well in a peer-reviewed academic journal, but it is hard to follow in a book like The Greek Revolution.

We are led through the Forms of Resistance of the occupied Greeks and the organization of Secret Societies especially the famous and indispensable Philiki Etaireia (The Society of Friends) which played a pivotal role in the organization of the uprising.

In Events and Places, the authors examine in alphabetical order the occurrences in 15 areas from the Aegean Islands to Asia Minor, Cyprus, Macedonia, Missolonghi Navarino, Rumeli and Samos. Katerina Galani and Gelina Harlaftis inform us that the Aegean and Ionian Seas islands contributed about six hundred vessels to the war effort. They correct a number of misconceptions or omissions about the contribution of the islands in areas like finance, organization and commercial and economic damage to the Ottomans. A good, narrative story of successes and setbacks on the seas.

In some places like Athens, Cyprus and Macedonia relatively little happens as compared to the dramatic events in Chios, Morea, Navarino and Rumeli. Robert Holland puts the great naval battle of Navarino in its international and diplomatic context. The British, French and Russian navies under Admiral Codrington destroyed a large Turkish-Egyptian navy under questionable authority. The Admiral was in fact disciplined but in the event the battle quickened and almost guaranteed the creation of an independent Greek state.

The second half of the book zeroes in on topics that are glanced at in general histories but not necessarily with the focus used in this book. They also include essays about the Persons involved, including Clergy, Civilian Leaders, Diplomats, Intellectuals, Military Leaders and Women.  

Phokion Kotzageorgis, Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, Folklore, and Social Anthropology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki tries to give a balanced view of the involvement of the clergy in the war. He points out that Patriarch Gregory V’s excommunication of Alexandros Ypsilantis and his vicious encyclical against the rebels at the start of the uprising had more to do with solicitude for the Greeks of Constantinople than fidelity to the Sultan.

Stavros Th. Anestidis of the Centre for Asia Minor Studies, in his essay on events in Constantinople takes a similar view. He suggests that the Patriarch had to deal with an “unrelenting blackmail. The lives of hundreds of thousands of Greek citizens were at imminent risk” in Constantinople. He states that the Patriarch feared that he “might jeopardize the very survival of the Christian population.”

Kotzageorgis praises Archbishop Germanos of Old Patras for his diplomatic ability but adds the “beyond whatever truth or fiction is concealed behind the doxology on the blessing of the revolutionaries’ weapons by Germanos in the Aghia Lavra monastery at Kalavryta, on March 25, 2821….[he] ….was an energetic member of the prelate clergy.” Is that supposed to mean that there is or there may be truth in the tradition that Germanos was at Aghia Lavra on March 25? I thought that the legend, indeed myth, that the revolution started on March 25, 1821 has no basis in fact. It is a myth that the church still promotes insisting that the War of Independence began on an important religious holiday and that it was a united effort of clergy and laity,

Kotzageorgis sets out the two diametrically opposed views. First, that the church was opposed to the revolution and it was dragged into it. Second, the church “wholeheartedly participated in the struggle or even played a leading role.” He tries to steer a middle, more nuanced role but I doubt that he will convince people to change sides on the argument.

Professor Lucien Frary of Rider University engages in the subject in his essay on The Orthodox Church. He argues that the Orthodox Church “was not the spearhead of a precocious national project.” No doubt religion was an essential element in Greek society and it “was at the core of the tragic cycle of retaliation and reprisal that characterized the War of Independence.” In the Peloponnese, according to Frary, the Greek insurrection erupted under the leadership of the Orthodox hierarchy. Then he adds that on the feast of the Annunciation, “Archbishop Germanos raised a banner with the cross on it at the Monastery of Agia Lavra and led a group of armed rebels to Patras, singing psalms and promising salvation to those who fall in battle against the Muslims.”       

He cites George Finlay’s A History of Greece, vol 4, page 145 and Charles Frazee’s The Orthodox Church and Independent Greece, to support his assertion. The reference to Finlay is wrong but one can find it in volume 6. Finlay states that the opinion that the revolution was proclaimed at Aghia Lavra is not correct. He writes of the legend of the start of the revolution that has been assumed to be historical. It clearly is not and I have no idea why Frary relies for support from an author who holds the opposite view. I have not been able to check the reference to Frazee.  

The publication of The Greek Revolution coincides with the 200th anniversary of the spontaneous uprising in the Peloponnese in March of 1821. The celebration of the anniversary was planned for years and numerous books have been published in Greece and elsewhere to mark the occasion. The coronavirus pandemic threw a huge monkey wrench into the preparations, but it did not go unnoticed. All parades and celebratory events were cancelled except for one in Athens. It was a stunning event televised around the world.

The blue and white colours of Greece could be seen around the world and Greeks everywhere looked with pride at the international bow to the motherland.  The Greek Revolution has two chapters on previous anniversaries with a glance at the 200th. The chapters were written before the 2021 anniversary but also before the current pandemic ruined everything. Anniversaries are statements about the the people’s view of the past and are a reflection of the national psyche of the present. Patriotism is a fundamental element of almost all Greeks and even more acutely felt in Greeks of the Diaspora. For that reason  I shall comment extensively on the essays about Anniversaries.

Professor Gonda Van Steen, the Koraes Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature and the Director of the Centre for Hellenic Studies at King's College London, has a fascinating chapter on Anniversaries and writes about the 50th, 100th and 150th anniversaries of the breakout of the Revolution. Each observance was significantly different from the others and says a great deal about the state of the Greek nation at the time.

March 25th was adopted as the date of the commencement of the revolution in 1838 to coincide with an event that never happened (the imaginary start of the revolution at Kalavryta with Archbishop Germanos) and the religious holiday of The Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. She quotes Professor Thomas Gallant as expressing the ideology of the 1871 jubilee as “the wedding of Orthodoxy to the Revolution.”

She writes that statues were erected of Rhigas Feraios Patriarch Gregory V and Adamantios Koraes representing a fusion of antiquity, Byzantinism and the modern era. The Patriarch condemned and excommunicated the revolutionaries in the strongest language, but it was not enough for the Turks who hanged him anyway. Fifty years after the event the Greek nation went into partnership with the church and recognized its nation-building even if it meant relying on some unhistorical events.

In 1871, Van Steen tells us, the new nation espoused the patriotic and expansionist ambition of the Great Idea (Megali Idea) and a people who were heirs of the continuation of classical and Byzantine civilization.

The 100th anniversary in 1921 took place as the occupation of Smyrna by Greece began to unravel. It was a muted affair, according to Van Steen, but Eleftherios Venizelos, who had instigated the Asia Minor adventure, turned the anniversary into “the Venizelist production of the leader’s personal triumph” that “marked the public euphoria about the Greeks’ military, territorial and diplomatic gains.” Venizelos had been voted out of office in November 1920.

In March 1921 the result of the Asia Minor war was unknown and hopes were high that there would be glorious victories and the regaining of land in Turkey including Constantinople. The big celebrations were therefore postponed to 1930, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Geek nation. By then what became known as the Asia Minor Catastrophe had occurred, Greece was humiliated, refugees had flooded the country and the patriotic ambitions of the Great Idea were dead and buried.

The 150th anniversary in 1971 was celebrated during the military dictatorship of the junta (1967-1974). It was a “celebration” of Greece’s military power with great emphasis on patriotism, as usual, but the key element was sacrifice for the motherland, war on communists and communism and a perversion of history to suit junta’s ideology. It all depended on how history was taught and viewed. The junta and its view of Greek history had its detractors, but it also had supporters in all walks of Greek life.

In the final chapter, Symbolic Commemorations and Cultural Affiliations, Professor Tsoukalas takes a synoptic view of The Greek War of Independence in its political and cultural aspects in early 19th century Europe and projects them to the then upcoming 200th anniversary. He notes that Greece is enduring through an unprecedent deep crisis and “its future is hanging by a thin thread” and, he states, historical circumstances are conspiring to deprive Greeks of celebrating the 200th anniversary. He is referring to the economic crisis of the last ten years and attaches no blame on Greece. It is a European affair. True but within the European affair Greece gained the status in the acronym PIGS which is made up of the initials of the worst-run European countries.  The financial crisis may have been exacerbated by currents beyond its control, but the huge loans incurred by successive Greek governments were hardly the fault of others.

Be that as it may Tsoukalas casts a long-range view of the political and cultural context of the revolution and expresses the hope that for Greece the crisis may prove to be cathartic. He sees a moral debt to Greece by Europe not just for the classical past but for the significant contribution to 19th century experience through the revolution and the cultural effects of Philhellenism. It is a grand vision but then came the coronavirus, Covid-19 and the devastating pandemic.

Tsoukalas’s vision is worth pursuing and The Greek Revolution provides information, controversy, and enough food for thought to sustain us for a long time. But, unfortunately, for most of us, not until the next big anniversary. But we will be here for the 201st   and will catch up on what we did not do for the 200th.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

THE MAGIC FLUTE - REVIEW OF STREAMING OF PARIS OPERA PRODUCTION

 James Karas

The Magic Flute was the brainchild of Emanuel Schikaneder, an extraordinarily talented man of popular theatre in Vienne in the latter half of the 18th century. That happens to coincide with the life of Mozart and Schikaneder wanted to put together a money-making singspiel based on his libretto for his Theatre auf der Wieden in a suburb of Vienna.

The opera with singing and spoken dialogue had other contributors to the libretto including fairy tales and a healthy dose of the philosophy of freemasonry. The Magic Flute opened on September 30, 1791 and was a big hit. It would almost certainly have joined the countless other hits of the era on the dusty shelves or dustbins of history were it not for the magical music composed by Mozart.

Some 230 years later, the Paris Opera has produced the work in an empty Opéra Bastille trying to observe some Covid-19 protocols. The effects of the disease are everywhere, and the news delivers frightful numbers of infections and deaths. Director Robert Carsen’s 2014 production zeroed in on the idea of death in general and in the opera in particular and it inadvertently takes full cognizance of what is happening during the current pandemic. The idea and the reality of the death of millions of people is all around and a more appropriate production can hardly be found.

In the opening scene our hero Tamino collapses near some mounds in the clearing of the forest. The mounds will turn out to be graves. The nasty Monostatos who will try to rape the lovely Pamina is a gravedigger. Graves will appear several times in the production as will a human skeleton and a skull. No one will miss the reference to the gravediggers’ scene from Hamlet when a skull is greeted with the words “Alas, Poor Yorick!” The appearance of coffins, black costumes and funereal veils will impress on us the idea of death.

Carsen uses modern costumes almost entirely black or white in conjunction with death as well as the moral lessons of the opera. The Magic Flute is a morality tale. Light, white, love, virtue, truth, and good are posed against darkness, black, hatred, vice, lies and evil. That is what fairy tales tell us and the freemasons, we suppose, stand for.

In the background we have the projection of a green forest. Its colours will change to brown, snow-covered white and barren to indicate the passage of time and the change of the seasons.

An aggressive morality tale amidst graves and coffins could be a fail-poof formula to keep people away from a production even during a lockdown. This production is nothing of the kind. It stands as an interesting view of the opera and a sheer pleasure to watch and hear.

The cast may not be from the top tier of singers, but their performance is superb. Tenor Cyrille Dubois is the heroic Tamino and he does a fine job in the role. He pursues the lovely Pamina, sung by soprano Julie Fuchs with a delicious voice and youthful ardour.

The comic relief is provided by the agile and irreverent Papageno of bass-baritone Alex Esposito who has made a career of singing comic character roles and he makes it perfectly obvious why in this performance.

Soprano Nina Minasyan is the Queen of the Night and she handles the regal rage and leaps across the two octaves of her mainstay aria. Sarastro (bass Nicolas Testé) is her opposite as the symbol of love and wisdom that he displays with sonorous beauty in his fine arias "O Isis und Osiris" and ‘In diesen heil'gen Hallen.”

The grave-digging, shovel-carrying and would-be rapist Monostatos is in the hands of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. Carsen does not overdo him because someone who tries to rape a woman does not need to be exaggerated.

The orchestra and chorus of the Paris National Opera were conducted by Cornelius Meister. 

Performing to an empty house during a pandemic has definite drawbacks. All involved, including the orchestra try to wear masks. That works for the strings, but the wind instrument players can’t very well blow in a flute. The chorus wears masks and sings with gusto. I could not tell if they were pre-recorded or if they managed to sound that good with their mouths covered. The main singers did not wear masks and social distancing was not exactly adhered to.

Whether you absorb the masonic virtues of strength, goodness, veracity, love and wisdom is up to you. You should enjoy this production done under difficult circumstanced, regardless of your moral standards. 

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The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is streamed by the Opéra national de Paris until February 22, 2021 with some cast changes. For more information visit: https://chezsoi.operadeparis.fr/products/the-magic-flute or  https://www.operadeparis.fr/

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

THE GLASS MENAGERIE – REVIEW OF NATIONAL THEATRE OF GREECE PRODUCTION

 James Karas

How do you produce a great play under Covid-19 strict social distancing conditions? How well can you do with a production that will be performed only once, without an audience and streamed live around the world in Greek?

The play is Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie Γυάλινος Κόσμος) which was produced by the National Theatre of Greece on January 23, 2021 precisely as described above. It was a stunning production and interpretation of the play that deserves a much greater audience than could be garnered by one broadcast.

A lion’s share of the credit must go to director Giorgos Nanouris for his brilliant and imaginative approach to the play and his compliance with distancing requirements that took nothing away from the power of the play. He and set designer Mary Tagari have the play performed on a stage that has a kitchen table and a sofa well apart. Nothing else.

The all-important glass menagerie, the collection of delicate figurines that constitute Laura’s world are represented by a chandelier with delicate-looking bulbs. The chandelier is lowered to head level and raised as required and it works extremely well. Having Laura play with small figurines would have required a breach of social distancing and the solution seems simply inspired. The background is entirely black with a white smoke visible now and then. It is a dream play and again the indication provided by the background is appropriate and superb.

The action of the play is what Tom remembers about life with his mother Amanda, his disabled sister Laura and a visitor Jim in Mississippi in the 1930’s. All the characters have an alternate universe, a memory of another  world that did not or does not exist. A production needs to capture those worlds, take us through the lives of the characters to the devastating and tragic end. 

Konstantinos Babis gives us an angry, troubled and desperate Tom stuck in a dead-end job with an unbearable mother and a troubled sister. He writes poetry on his job in a shoe warehouse and goes to the movies to find escape and solace. Babis makes us feel his anger and his desperation and  we share his guilt about leaving his sister behind.

The mother, Amanda (Anna Moscha), is just as desperate and frustrated as Tom. She is garrulous, annoying and unable to see beyond her own unhappiness. Her alternate world is her imaginary youth. She considers herself a former Southern belle, a beautiful, aristocratic woman who was visited by numerous high-class suitors. She chose a loser. Moscha gives us a marvelous portrayal of this pathetic woman who does love her children but cannot grasp reality or dispose of her dream world.

The glass menagerie is Laura’s (Lena Papaligoura) other world. Her physical defect, a foot that makes her limp, has caused psychological injury to the extent that she is almost incapable of living in the real world. She is as delicate as the figurines (in this production the lightbulbs) that she loves and when one of them is broken she cries inconsolably. It is an extraordinarily moving scene. In Jim, the gentleman visitor that her brother brings as a possible suitor, she meets someone that she knew and had a crush on in high school. He manages to bring her out – dance with her and kiss her – and then tells her he is engaged. (The kiss is indicated by clever use of shadows.) He destroys her. A moving and beautifully nuanced performance of a tough role.

Anastasis Roilos plays Jim. He is a young man full of confidence, great dreams and a bright future. Maybe. He was a popular high school student who showed  great promise – he could have become president before thirty, he thought. He fizzed out and ended up working in a shoe warehouse with Tom. All that is left is his glorious past, his terrible present and his dreams for the future. He has a lot in common with the other characters in the play. Roilos exudes Jim’s confidence and humanity impeccably.

The National Theatre of Greece has had is ups and downs since its inception in 1890 including disappearing for decades. That is in the past and now it is recognized as a major cultural organization. Its forays abroad have been severely curtailed, but streaming should offer opportunities for gaining a worldwide audience. It should aim for more than Greeks of the diaspora and having subtitles in English and other languages is a must. Let us hope they will pick up the torch.

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The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams was streamed on January 30, 2021 live from the Nikos Kourkoulos stage of the  Ziller Building,  Athens, Greece. For more information visit: www.n-t.gr

Saturday, January 16, 2021

MEDEA STREAMED FROM THE NATIONAL THEATRE OF GREECE

By James Karas 

In 431 BC Euripides submitted Medea as part of a trilogy to compete for what we may classify as the ancient Olympics of Drama. His competitors were Sophocles and Euphorion (the son of Aeschylus). Euphorion came in first, Sophocles, second and Euripides third. Medea is the only surviving play from that year’s competition.

Undaunted by the pandemic, the National Theatre of Greece has streamed a production of the play to be viewed around the world live on January 10, 2021. The production may more accurately be described as a recital of the play due to the severe restrictions imposed to fight the virus that is ravaging the world.

The recital is produced by the newly formed Classical Drama Research Theatre of the National Theatre. It is directed by Martha Frintzila who also plays Medea.  There are two other actors (Andreas Konstantinou and Thanos Tokakis) who play all the other roles, including the Chorus of Corinthian Women. There are three musicians on stage (Panagiotis Manouilidis, Vasilis Mantzoukis and Nikos Papaioannou who play various instruments and sing/recite some lines.


A recital has its drawbacks. It may uncharitably be described as boxing with one hand tied behind your back. But there are many recitals especially of operas and a good boxer can do a lot and Frintzila does. There is very little movement during the performance for Covid-19 related reasons.  Medea is seated on a raised area draped in black coverlets and dressed in black. In fact, everything in the small playing area is aggressively black including the ubiquitous rocks strewn on the stage.

The two actors playing all the characters accords with what Athenians saw in 431 BC. The Chorus is the exception, of course. The actors would have worn different masks for each character. In this production there were no masks and at times it was hard to distinguish which character they represented. 

Frintzila takes liberties with the text, as do most directors, but she transposes some of Medea’s lines to the two actors. One of the most dramatic scenes in the play is Medea’s heart wrenching farewell to her children in Episode 5. She is bent on revenge but her resolve almost falters when she is about to send her children to their death. I cannot understand the reason for the transposition of lines in a pivotal scene. Frintzila has a beautiful, resonant voice and she should be heard reciting all her lines. Some of the choral odes are recited by the musicians. 

The black-clad Frintzila with braided hair looks regal and commanding. She recites her lines meticulously and expressively. She is almost static almost throughout the play until the end when she unbraids her hair, sheds some of her clothes and throws her arms in the air and does modified dance movements of triumph.

Konstantinou and Tokakis move around the playing area, lie down and recite most of the lines of the play with some help from the musicians.

The music, with some exceptions, has Eastern tones, almost invariably dramatic, played by 2 double basses, percussion, a guitar, and a keyboard.   

The English title of the production is given as Medea’s Son(g)s with appropriate references to the children and the operatic provenance of the play.  

The streaming was advertised as having English subtitles. It may well be my severely limited technical competence, but I was unable to find them.

Despite the obvious limitations that are not the fault of the director or the cast, this was a highly creditable production of a complex play. We saw Aeschylus’s’ Persians last July streamed from Epidaurus and one hopes that this will become a frequent habit.

At the premiere of Medea at dawn in the spring of 431 BC about 15,000 Athenians saw the play in the Theatre of Dionysus. The streaming was viewed by about 1300. The National Theatre has a world to conquer live or through streaming. We can’t wait.

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Medea by Euripides was streamed live by the National Theatre of Greece on January 10, 2021. https://www.n-t.gr/

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press. This review appeared first in the newspaper.