Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, loved opera, ballet
and theater and recommended them strongly – along with such Western
artifacts as the Roman alphabet, the panama hat, and votes – and scarfless
hair – for women. He saw the theater as a key to entering the modern world
– and isn’t it?
You will know you have come to the right place on Taksim because colorful
posters for the opera season cover the wall to the left of the Ataturk
Center. (Tickets are sold at a kiosk to the right of the building.) The
Center was built in 1969 and is sedately modern, neither flamboyant nor
hideous – 1969 was a dull time for international architecture from New York
to New Delhi. The auditorium is comfortable and of a comfortable size.
A Turkish friend who sings himself spoke unkindly of opera in his native
land, but I thought, if their Macbeth is as good as the Forza del Destino (or
Moč Sudbine) I heard in Zagreb seven years ago – honest, idiomatic,
provincial Verdi starring the stoutest woman in Croatia, lovely voice, no top
notes, and only the basso embarrassing – then I’ll enjoy myself. It was
my last night in Istanbul, and much as I delight in Turkish folk music, I
longed for an evening free of the Middle Eastern wail. To my great pleasure,
what I got was honest, idiomatic, provincial Verdi, in a production set on
telling the story, not some director’s interpretation of the story, with an
all-Turkish cast who knew how to sing Italian opera and did so, led by a
soprano with a lovely voice (including the top) who was easily the stoutest
woman I saw in Turkey.
Perihan Nayır Artan knew her business. Passionate in her entrance without
fudging the coloratura, keyed up during the duet, her pretty voice abruptly
hard at such moments as “Dammi al ferro,” when she demands Macbeth give
her the bloody daggers, and convincingly lost in an inner hell during the
sleepwalk, when the voice floated, contradicting the horrors she sang of.
I’d like to hear her Aida someday. Murat Güney gracefully sang a somewhat
distanced Macbeth, regretful but not exactly tormented as his world falls
apart, still a warrior despite an aluminum sword that bent at the first blow.
Tenor Hüseyin Likos, Macduff, seemed ready for Verdi’s shriller leading
roles like Radames and Manrico. After a few rough spots in the overture,
Markus Baisch kept the orchestra pumping if not exactly eldritch in this
score’s often highly original use of winds and strings to produce uncanny
– in 1847, unprecedented – effects.
Yekta Kara’s production was basic but not risible. (From house photos, I
gather the real money is saved to dazzle in Arabian Nights operas like
Mozart’s Sihirli Flüt and S. Ada’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. They
also give Mozart’s Seraglio every summer – in the Topkapi seraglio.)
Special effects were minimal, but the story was clearly and effectively told.
The witches wore white – appearing to be surgical nurses, with bloody
aprons they lent to Banquo’s murderers. The men were in black and only Lady
M got to wear a color – guess which. The direction rather privileged the
witches, who were shown manipulating all the other characters, even in scenes
where they do not usually appear (Lady M’s cabaletta invoking “ye spirits
that tend on mortal thoughts” and also, their fingers dripping blood down a
wall, during “Le luce langue”). The witches handed Macbeth paper and pen
to write home, delivered the letter, rescued Fleance, undermined victorious
Malcolm, and sang the lines behind the apparitions in the cauldron scene –
forces of chaos, enemies to all human effort. This, I think, gives them too
much power and takes it from Macbeth – in Shakespeare, he is clearly the
author of his own misfortunes, committing his crimes though imaginatively
aware of how how disastrous this choice will be. In Kara’s production, he
has an alibi – the devil makes him do it – and thus his own character
becomes less interesting.
The words were easily comprehensible to anyone familiar with opera
Italian, but there were no surtitles – which may be why the story was so
clearly told. There was also no prompter’s box – instead lines were
hissed from stage right. This would annoy hell out of me in Wagner or Mozart,
but in a creep show like Macbeth, it rather added to the atmosphere.