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Macbeth in Istanbul
14 Nov 2007

Macbeth in Istanbul

Attending the opera may not be the first thing you think of when visiting Istanbul, but opera is to be found (if less well advertised than the local Bach Festival) at the Ataturk Cultural Center on Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul.

Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth
Istanbul State Opera and Ballet, Ataturk Center, 23 October 2007

Perihan Nayır Artan (Lady), Murat Güney (Macbeth), Hüseyin Likos (Macduff), Gökhan Ürben (Banquo). Conducted by Markus Baisch. Production by Yekta Kara.


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.

John Yohalem

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