Aida at Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival

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
crËme de la crËme 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 Atat¸rk International and Sabiha Gˆkcen

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 J¯rn 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 S˘! 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 Ek?io?lu 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 Ay?ag¸l Alev was also not so kind to
La Gabouri in the Triumphal Scene when her shimmering auric lamÈ 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
or a provincial Turkish opera company to rival il
Teatro alla Scala.
That is not the point of the occasion or the raison
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 ‘Entf¸hrung 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

image_description=The Roman theatre in Aspendos
product_title=Aida at Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival
product_by=A review by Jonathan Sutherland
product_id=Above: The Roman theatre in Aspendos