If Electra is Theodorakis’s most dramatic opera, a tour de force of rhythmic tension and grand operatic moments, the third of his lyric tragedies, Antigone, is an appropriate choice for the final play of the trilogy.
Antigone's mourning - Tzeni Drivala as Antigone. (Photo: Guy Wagner)
The ballet suite Antigone was his first major international commission, and the play is one he has always been drawn to. For him, it represents “the whole closed circle of a repeated human tragedy. It symbolizes the eternal evil...that accompanies the human race. On one side are the persecutors, on the other, the victims...The gods of evil symbolize the basic instinct of domination, the thirst for power and control” (1999). In the Theban cycle, Creon and Eteocles, in the composer’s view, represent the dark side of humanity, whereas Oedipus has been singled out for punishment by the forces of evil. In Jocasta, we see a woman subjected to the ultimate torment, while Polynices has simply chosen to fight evil with evil. But from the ashes of the utterly destroyed city of Thebes rise two figures in white: “the necessary victims destined to be sacrificed on the altar to propitiate the Shades of Evil” (1999). As lovers as well as victims, they become an apotheosis of invincible Eros, enabling Theodorakis to end this opera and his trilogy not on a note of despair but of transcendent lyricism.
If there is a mythic theme that has a special resonance for the Greeks who lived and suffered through the Civil War, it is the fratricide of the Theban cycle. Theodorakis wrote that from the time he was fifteen, already familiar with ancient Greek mythology and caught up in the horrors of the second World War and the Civil War, he “saw the Theban disaster repeated again and again, each time acquiring new dimensions” (1999: 15-16). During those terrible years he hoped that “the thousands of sacrificed Antigones would indeed propitiate the baser human instincts” only to be disappointed. On the other hand, “as it always happened, and still does today, there are lovers of beauty, powerless followers of the Good who fashion artistic likenesses of human passion, so that we can hang them like offerings at the imaginary Temple where defeated man is still worshipped” (1999: 16).
No-one familiar with the composer’s work will fail to make a connection between Antigone and Theodorakis’s own musical play The Song of the Dead Brother, composed between 1960 and 1963. In this piece of musical theater, with its songs performed by a popular singer and a typical Athenian musical ensemble led by two bouzouki players, Theodorakis deliberately tried to produce a contemporary mythical story that would treat the events of the Civil War in much the same way as ancient tragedy had. Setting his work in a neighborhood of Athens at an indefinite time during the war, the composer noted that it is a period when “the Mother suddenly emerges as the most painful but also the most stable figure of modern Greek ‘mythology’” (1974: 366). In his drama, the mother’s two sons, Pavlos and Nikolio, are on opposite sides of the Greek struggle, locked in deadly combat with one another. Pavlos, the brother who symbolizes progress and new ideas, finds himself caught in knot of conflicts that can only be resolved by his own destruction. Ismene, the heroine who loves and betrays him, is finally killed as she tries to save him. The sacrifice of Ismene, as Theodorakis says, reminds us “of the human sacrifices in the foundations of large buildings or legendary bridges” (1974: 368). And in words that echo his own program notes for Antigone, the composer wonders how many millions of innocent victims like Ismene have and will continue to bathe the foundations [of the building of world peace] with their blood” (Ibid.)
The civil war and its long aftermath, which lasted until 1974, dominated much of Theodorakis’s creative life. No Greek of his generation, especially those who suffered imprisonment and torture because they happened to be on the wrong side, can forget the horrors of the period or the recriminations that followed. To make the parallel with modern Greek history explicit in his opera, Theodorakis needed his Theban opera to extend beyond Sophocles’ Antigone. He needed a Jocasta torn between the two warring brothers and he needed an Oedipus as a symbol of the self-destruction implicit in all such conflicts, but particularly in modern Greece. His solution was to write his own libretto for Antigone, making a collage from five ancient plays dealing with the Theban cycle -- Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Euripides’ Phoenician Women, and Sophocles’ three Theban plays. The result was another impossibly long work in seven scenes, which he later reduced to five. By introducing the clash of Eteocles and Polynices from Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, and Jocasta as an innocent intermediary, Theodorakis is able to stress the cyclical nature of human strife and the helplessness of the innocent to intervene. Eteocles and Creon become power-hungry doubles, and the fight to the death between the two brothers foreshadows the clash of values and beliefs between Antigone and Creon. Oedipus and Antigone are also paired in the opera, both achieving through different means what the composer sees as the “fundamental gift of life, which is to be united with the laws of universal harmony” (1999, op. cit.).
The plot, without its borrowings and omissions (among them Ismene, who disappears entirely from the libretto) is a personal, idiosyncratic version of the Antigone myth, one that enables Theodorakis to unite his musical and philosophical vision of the inevitable, universal human tragedy and the particular tragic history of his own country. Dramatically, there is sometimes a price to pay for the introduction of so much extraneous material. In scene one, for example, Oedipus’s long aria and exchange with the leader of the chorus threaten to weigh down the action before it begins. The angry and blasphemous Oedipus summarizes the events leading up to the main action of the opera. Having been influenced by the “Law of Universal Harmon” the aging Oedipus is the alter ego of the composer; for both this realm represents the “beyond” of metaphysical searching and his final destination.
In the opening scene of the opera there are brief references to Oedipus Tyrannus. In the second, the appearance of Eteocles, his dialogue with the female chorus, and the preparation for the battle are elements taken from Seven Against Thebes. The collage of tragedies and the introduction of Oedipus as narrator has prepared the way for scene three, based exclusively on Euripides’ Phoenician Women, with its rapid exchange of dialogue between the leader of the chorus, Creon and Antigone. To this play we also owe the appearance of Jocasta, her attempt to reconcile the two brothers, the battle of words between them the two brothers followed by their fatal duel. The clash of words and swords between Eteocles and Polynices brings dramatic tension back to the stage after its somewhat slow beginning and builds to a climax in which the grieving Jocasta is given one of the finest arias in the opera (I pio distihi mitera -- The most wretched mother). The sources of this aria are two of the songs Theodorakis wrote in 1942 in Tripolis (“For a Dead Woman” and “The Autumn of Love”). Each of these melodies, written at a time of national trauma during the German occupation but also at a time of innocent adolescence, are recalled at points in the opera which stress the purity of Jocasta’s love for her sons, Antigone’s and Haemon’s for each other. They are cross-referenced to the composer’s own early work, but to songs which very few Greeks have ever heard and even fewer could link to a particular period of Theodorakis’s life. The same melody reappears in Antigone’s aria at the end of scene 3, and it becomes the dominant melody of the second act.
Antigone’s first aria is also self referential. It is a lament for her brothers and her mother. To a western-trained ear it begins as a chromatic tone row, but to a trained Greek ear it is made up of a melodic material familiar from the Byzantine chromatic mode known as the 2nd plagal echos, a modal type that also happens to be common in rebetika music. Only a few bars into the aria the clarinet introduces a quite different melody, one that Theodorakis used for the darkest of his Lorca settings and one of the most majestic of his melodies: Pandermi (Romance de la Pena Negra ). For those who pick up such associations, there is an added dimension to the score, but the strength of Antigone lies in its melodic richness whether it is achieved by combining fragments of old melodies or writing new ones.
Self reference is one of a number of devices now familiar from the first two operas of the trilogy. As in his previous operas, the chorus of Antigone frequently sings in unison or in two voices. Varying from scene to scene as old men, women, and finally a mixed choir, their music tends to be simpler than the soloists so that they intervene as commentators whose clear articulation communicates directly with the audience. Another familiar device is the use of triplets for dramatic effect and of mixed duple and triple meters. The opera begins with such a combination, a version
of a zebekiko dance that echoes the composer’s 1984 cycle of songs Ta Asisika (The Gallant Songs) [ix] both in its Asia Minor-inspired rhythms and its modal character. The mode here is the Ottoman mode of sabach, but it also suggestive of Byzantine, even of ancient Phrygian mode, hinting at the continuity of the Greek musical tradition.
As the plot and action of the opera accelerate, the musical language changes. At the beginning of the second scene a melodic motif is introduced that will dominate the rest of the first act. The clash between Oedipus and the chorus of Theban elders is highlighted not only by the angular music, but by the clash of male voices, ranging from Oedipus’ bass, to the Chorus leader’s bass baritone and the full range of male voices in the choral sections. A similar use of contrasting male voices occurs in the clash between the two brothers where Eteocles’ confident baritone throws Polynices’ timorous tenor into sharp relief. The same pairing of baritone and tenor highlights the conflict between Creon and his son Haemon.
The contrast between the melodic themes of acts one and two underlines the strong difference in character between the two acts, the first building to a climax of dramatic action, the second more lyrical. The repetition of the two themes and the clear melodic lines of the opera help to counteract the complexity of the libretto. Except for the chorus leader’s description of the death of Jocasta and her sons, Theodorakis avoids recitative. Even here, the soloist recalls the melismatic chant of an Orthodox priest at a burial service rather than recitative of western opera.
Whereas the first act of Antigone compresses material from several different tragedies into a collage that threatens to become unwieldy, the second act involves a different form of compression, where the Sophoclean original is eventually concentrated on a single line repeated over and over again in both its ancient and modern Greek forms: eros anikate mahan, (Love, invincible in battle). The phrase becomes hypnotic by the end of the opera, but it is perhaps at its most effective in the chorus that follows Creon’s final pronouncement of Antigone’s death sentence. Here again, anyone familiar with Theodorakis’s music will recognize the poignant falling notes of the minor third in the opening bars.
Antigone is the most lyrical of Theodorakis’s three operas and the one in which he makes the synthesis of his popular and classical composition most transparent. Rhythmically, melodically, and tonally Antigone reminds the listener that he/she is not listening to a piece from the mainstream of western classical composition. Instead, it is an opera that quite logically closes the circle begun with the ballet Antigone and moved through Epitaphios and the great song-cycles of the 1960’s to the choral symphony and back to the youthful composer’s fascination with ancient drama, poetry and song.
It would be ironic if opera, in some ways the most elite of art forms, should prove the means for Theodorakis to re-establish himself as a “classical” composer in his own country. Having watched the premieres of his operas in three different countries, I suspect that however popular they may become elsewhere, a Greek audience will respond in a unique way to the resonance of their musical and poetic language. This is not only because of references to modern Greek music and history, but because of a particular view Greeks bring to ancient Greek mythology and literature. What is difficult to make moral sense of in modern European or American productions of Greek drama may be more plausible in Greece. [x] Whether Greeks have an affinity for the tragic, as Theodorakis claims, performances of Greek drama in modern times have consistently attracted huge audiences. I will try to avoid the murky waters of any theory of continuity between ancient and modern Greece, but suggest that the fact that modern Greek productions have consistently commissioned Greece’s leading composers to compose music for the choruses of ancient tragedy and comedy suggests an understanding of the musical as well as the poetic function of the chorus which makes it possible to watch a Medea or an Electra as symbolic and awe-inspiring dramas rather than personal melodramas.
If they are operas for the people, Theodorakis’s “lyric tragedies” are operas written with a particular people in mind. This is not necessarily to say that Greeks will embrace them as they have done his semi-popular works. Musically they make few concessions. In an age where minimalism is in vogue, they are heavily orchestrated, and when they are not making use of Greek melodic and rhythmic material, they appear to owe more to Berg or Wagner than to the Italian masters to whom they are dedicated. Unfashionably grand, requiring the full resources of a large opera company and a major orchestra, they will require continued private sponsorship to remain part of the repertoire of Greek opera. Outside Greece, they face the same obstacles as all new operas do, especially those that require large resources. Opera goers are generally conservative and the new operas that become part of the repertoire are few and far between. Nevertheless the combination of Theodorakis’s melodic gifts, his international prestige, and a universal reverence for ancient tragedy may overcome these obstacles; Theodorakis may turn out, once again, to have composed, if not “opera for the masses” at least trilogy of operas that have a broad appeal.
© Gail Holst 2000
Foley, Helene. 2000. Unpublished talk on Sophocles’ Electra at New York’s Donnell Library, June 8th.
Hirschon, Renee. 1989. Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe: The Social Life of Asia Minor Refugees in Piraeus. Oxford: Clarendon Press
Holst, Gail. 1975. Road to Rembetika:: Music of a Greek Sub-culture. Athens: Denise Harvey.
________________1980. Theodorakis: Myth and Politics in Modern Greek Music. Amsterdam: Adolf Hakkert.
Holst-Warhaft, Gail. 1992. Dangerous Voices: Women’s Lament and Greek Literature. London: Routledge.
Koutoulas, Asteris. 1998. O Mousikos Theodorakis: Keimena-Ergografia-Ktritikes. 1937-1996) (Theodorakis the Musician: Articles, Working Notes, Criticism ). Athens: Nea Synora.
McDonald, Marianne.1994. “Katharsis into Modern Opera.” The Journal of Modern Greek Arts, (Spring, 1994: 37-44).
________________1997. “Medea as Politican and Diva: Riding the Dragon into the Future.” In Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy and the Arts, eds., James J. Clauss and Sarah Iles Johnton. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp.297-323.
Rosenberg, Harold. 1977 “The Art World.” New Yorker, 22 August, 83-4.
Seremetakis, C. Nadia. 1991. The Last Word: Women, Death and Divination in Inner Mani. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Theodorakis, Mikis. 1959. “ I mousiki stin arhaia Elliniki traghodia.” (“Music in Ancient Greek Tragedy”). Originally published in Kritiki, 2, 1959, p 78. Reproduced in Theodorakis, 1961, 65-71
________________1960. “To provlima tis mousikis stin arhaia traghodia” (“The problem of Music in Ancient Tragedy”). Originally published in Avyi, 12/4/1960. Reproduced in Theodorakis, 1961, 72-76.
________________1961. Yia tin Elliniki mousiki. (On Greek Music ). Athens: Pleias
________________1966. “To klima pou gennai ta gnisia traghoudhia.” (“The Climate that Produces Genuine Songs”). Interview in Nea Yenia., Jan. 15th.
________________1972. Mousiki yia tis mazes (Music for the masses). Athens: Olkos.
________________1974. To Chreos (The Debt ) (Two volumes.) Athens: Pleias.
________________1991a Unpublished notes on Medea.
________________1991b Unpublished notes on Medea.
________________1995. Author’s interview with Theodorakis, Meiningen, May 5th.
________________1995b Unpublished notes on Electra.
________________1997. Melopoimeni Piisi, Tomos A’ Traghoudia (Poetry Set to Music: Vol.1, Songs) . Athens: Ypsilon.
________________1998. Melopoimeni Piisi, Tomos B’ Symphonica-Metasymphonica-Oratoria (Poetry Set to Music: Vol.2, Symphonic, Metasymphonic, Oratorios. Athens:Ypsilon.
________________1999 Program notes for the premiere of Antigone (October 7th).
Van Steen, Gonda. 2000. Venom in Verse: Aristophanes in Modern Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Wagner, Guy. 1995. “Mikis Theodorakis: Myth and Opera.” Tageblatt /Zeitung fir Letzebuerg, 26th April.
[ix] The cycle encompasses the songs recorded on the CD Asikiko Poulaki (1996) and later rearranged for piano, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, flute, ‘cello, bass and drums. See Asteris Koutoulas, O Mousikos Theodorakis, 1937-1996, p. 105.
[x] Talking of Sophocles’ Electra, Helene Foley remarked on how difficult it is to stage the last act of the play for a modern western audience. How are we to read the last lines of play which appear to exonerate Electra? (Panel discussion in New York’s Donnel Library on the occasion of the premiere of Theodorakis’s
Electra at Carnegie Hall in June, 2000).