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The Roman theatre in Aspendos
07 Sep 2014

Aida at Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival

In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.

Aida at Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival

A review by Jonathan Sutherland

Above: The Roman theatre in Aspendos


Built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius some 120 years after the arena of Verona, this spectacular structure in ancient Anatolian Pamphylia was less concerned with accommodation for lions, exotic African creatures or reluctant mortal-combatants than is usually evident in the subterranean labyrinths of its more famous Italian counterparts. Nevertheless being a Roman entertainment venue, performances were definitely not limited spectacles of the thespian, calliopean or terpsichorean kind.

In fact protection from escaping beasts (or even more agile leaping slaves) in the form of a parapet was added in front of the cavea (today’s stalls or parterre seating) sometime in the 3rd century. This was probably wise as the closest seats were always reserved for the crème de la crème of the Roman Empire and it would have been very bad PR for the theatre if any of its A-List patrons were eaten during the show.

Aspendos is recorded as having been in regular operation through Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk and Ottoman times and after two millennia of usage, despite a short period when the precipitous slope was somehow converted into a palace (it must have been a nightmare to design vertigo-free accommodation on all those steps) it is today rightly considered as the finest example of an ancient Roman theatre in existence. So apart from whatever summer divertissement happens to be on offer (Aida seems to be a verging on the ubiquitous but is limited to only one performance) during the balmy months, a visit to Aspendos is very much recommended, regardless of the quality of the performance and regrettable absence of gladiatorial combat.

The opening of the 21st Aspendos Opera & Ballet Festival this year may have lacked the black-tie and ball-gown elegance of first night at Glyndebourne or the Met, but in its natural al fresco informality, it was the astounding theatre itself which rightly deserved the highest panegyrics. Being somewhat distant from any neighbouring town or village, flotillas of tour busses, private conveyances and assorted forms of non-chariot transport converged on the impressive site about an hour before the performance was scheduled to begin.

Although reputedly at one time seating anything from 10,000-15.000 spectators, due to the closure of the uppermost rows due to crumbling stone and safety concerns, around 5,000 opera enthusiasts were anticipated in the theatre, and judging by the language of most of the excited conversations in the car-park, the majority appeared to be of German origins. Only one small entrance was available through which, in ‘eye of the needle’ fashion, the large audience had to pass, but with commendable Teutonic self-discipline, the long line of opera enthusiasts remained impressively self-controlled with nary a queue-jumper or furtive advancer taking advantage of the general bonhomie of the evening. Turkish Airlines should encourage such civility in its immigration queues at Atatürk International and Sabiha Gökcen airports.

On finally entering the splendid ancient edifice, several oddities immediately presented themselves to the seasoned opera-goer. Firstly, there were no programmes available for purchase or inspection to enlighten the audience as to cast or plot; secondly there was virtually no crowd control or ushers to supervise the rush for the best places (tickets being unnumbered); thirdly the necessity for some kind of ‘bring your own padding’ (enterprising cushion renters outside the theatre were doing a brisk trade) to protect 21st century posteriors from incommodious 2nd century stone ledges; and finally the need to observe extreme caution when negotiating the precipitous and almost vertiginous unevenly spaced steps to reach the perch of one’s choosing. As there is clearly no concept of public liability or codified Health and Safety regulations in Turkey, a false step could easily result in an unlucky opera-goer falling headlong into a timpani or creating havoc with other members of the orchestra. Admittedly this would be preferable to former times when the end of one’s tumble could have been the mouth of a lion, but nevertheless extreme caution, especially in conditions of dim or non-existent lighting is most assuredly required.

Hopefully the opera loving tourists in the audience were familiar with the work, for although sung in the original Italian, the ‘side-titles’ in screens situated on both sides of the broad stage area, were only in Turkish.

As for the superb auditorium itself, without recourse to sophisticated 21st century computer-assisted acoustic expertise, keeping Hellenistic traditions of utilizing the rear hillside to form a symmetrical shell shaped steeply raked seating area and using only limestone of virtually marble-like quality, the Greek architect Zeno was able to build a theatre with arguably perfect acoustics. Perhaps the acoustical engineers of the Sydney Opera House should have made a visit to Turkey before they made a blancmange of Jørn Utzon’s peerless exterior.

Sadly the flawless acoustics of Aspendos are a double edged sword. While the smallest vocal or instrumental pianissimo can easily be heard in the very back tier of the vast coliseum, it also means that the slightest glitch in intonation or pitch is cruelly revealed. The hushed 1st violin opening bars of the brief prelude to Aida were certainly not the optimal way to beguile the perfect-pitch or tone-sensitive members of the audience. With scratchy, patchy, variable intonation and bereft of any kind of agreeable string tone, things were off to a very wobbly start. For some reason the string section of the orchestra, with the occasional exception of the double basses in forte tutte, sounded thin, non-resonant, timbre-less and flat (even though the concert mistress tended to play slightly above pitch on several occasions).

Interestingly the instruments which worked best in these superb bright acoustics were those more closely related to instruments of antiquity — flutes, trumpets, horns, drums, general woodwind and percussion. The tone colour of the first clarinet was particularly pleasing.

The conductor, Argentinean born but Izmir resident Tulio Gagliardo certainly made a big impression on his entrance. Wearing a white calf-length overcoat (not a vented tails or frack coat but a voluminous manteau usually associated with rabbit-producing magicians) he raised his baton in the manner of a magic wand from which one almost expected multi-coloured silk ribbons would at any moment appear. It would seem that this rather peculiar attire is his personal fashion statement, as his website shows numerous pictures of him wearing the same striking habiliments.

The originality of such sartorial elegance was made even more obvious by the fact that the rest of the orchestra were in smart black trousers/skirts and open back shirts. In fact Maestro Gagliardo’s whole appearance was reminiscent of a cross between David Copperfield and a hirsute Uri Geller.

One only wished that he could have bent a bit more accuracy in pitch from most of the string section. As mentioned, the concert mistress was less than pristine in intonation, the first cellist worse and the first double-bass downright appalling.

According to his website, Maestro Gagliardo has conducted Aida 24 times, including performances in Carcassonne and Nimes so it is no surprise that he was clearly familiar with the score. He directed both musicians and singers with minimal theatrics (apart from the dreadful white overcoat) and with a refreshingly clear, uncomplicated baton technique. One suspects he is as much a regular feature with Aida in Aspendos as the opera itself and he certainly received a thunderous ovation during the endless curtain calls.

His handling of the potentially tricky large ensembles was crisp and precise, even if his tempi in the Sù! del Nilo al sacro lido chorus sounded more oom-pah-pah brass-bandish than the stirring musical-military pageant one is accustomed to hear under Toscanini, Abbado, Muti or von Karajan. A gentle rubato and well measured accelerando for flutes in the sacred dance of the priestesses in Act I Scene II in the Temple of Vulcan was particularly well played.

The singers were all Turkish and members of the Izmir State Opera and Ballet company. Although Turkey once had an outstanding diva in the internationally acclaimed Leyla Gencer whose illustrious career spanned more than 30 years and who also sang Aida at La Scala, her eminence as the greatest opera singer in the country’s history was not challenged by any of the principles in this production.

The Radames, Enrique Ferrer had a small, thin, bleating tenor voice which admittedly improved after he had got through the terrifyingCeleste Aida aria but never managed to fully project across the orchestra; the attractive Aida of Evren Ekṣioǧlu had some nice spinto moments in the O patria mia aria although she was less convincing in the dramatico demands of Ritorno vincitor; the Amonasro of Tamer Peker was powerful in the triumphal scene but a bit barky in the great Act III Nile scene confrontation; the King of Egypt, Hasan Alptekin was diminutive in stature, voice and presence (in fact he looked more like some kind of pharaonic court jester in an enormous gold dunce hat than the omnipotent successor to Rameses II); and the Amneris of Eena Gabouri, although definitely a favourite with the audience, managed to milk everything she could from the role using tuba-like chest notes and a vibrato-laden upper register which in the Act IV Judgement scene ( Sacerdoti, compiste un delitto) owed more to Ethel Merman than Guiletta Simionato. The dramatic effect was somewhat spoiled however when in despair she sought an obelisk on which to lean her not so large corpus — only to have the supposedly 10 tonne column slide away on first touch. Amneris turned Super Woman. Unfortunately the costumer designer Ayṣagül Alev was also not so kind to La Gabouri in the Triumphal Scene when her shimmering auric lamé outfit was complimented with such a high golden headdress she looked more like a gold-foil wrapped Easter bunny than a pharaoh’s daughter.

In consideration of the performance as a whole, it would be entirely unreasonable to expect a local Izmir based orchestra to play like theWiener Philharmoniker or a provincial Turkish opera company to rival il Teatro alla Scala. That is not the point of the occasion or the raison d’être of attending the Aspendos Festival. The value of the experience is to enjoy a more than acceptable performance of a great opera in a setting which is both unique, magical, historically fascinating and the pinnacle of acoustic excellence.

One feels that Verdi would have been much more happy had he been commissioned by the musically enlighted Ottoman Sultan Abulazziz to create a new ‘Entführung aus dem Serail’ rather than the opus reluctantly written for the rather dull and definitely pushy Isma’il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt. At least in Aspendos he would have had the most impressive theatre of antiquity in which to have his grandest of grand operas performed.

All that said, this Luddite of a music reviewer must confess to being no great enthusiast of opera in the fresh outdoors. With the possible exception of the extraordinary and wonderfully atmospheric Savonlinna Castle in central Finland, bucolic settings are much more suitable to the racing of horses and dogs, bear-baiting, football, pig-sticking, bocce, kite-flying, and sundry Olympic and less demanding sporting activities than anything of a purely musical nature.

Somehow the legacy of Monteverdi, Mozart, Verdi and Wagner in proscenium-less stages is not ideally suited to noisy traffic and the inebriated hubbub of late night revellers (Verona); wafting aromas of dead fish (Torre del Largo) off-pitch frog warblings in the lake reeds (Bregenz); distracting shadows of passing birdlife (Orange); passenger planes roaring overhead (Caracalla) or ferry hootings and fruit bats (Sydney Opera on the Harbour). Then there is also the added annoyance of rain. Clearly Messrs Stradivari and Guanieri did not intend their instruments for sub-aqueous usage.

In this case the enormously high back wall to the stage in Aspendos is able to eliminate most non-musical distractions and one has the feeling of sitting in a stone based open-ceilinged cocoon under the stars. The only unsolicited exterior distraction in the proceedings came almost at the end of the opera when a passing Pegasus Airlines plane left an off-pitch sostenuto from the wake of its jet engines. But at least the timing was apt — Radames and Aida were singing “O terra, addio.”

Jonathan Sutherland

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