- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 7, 2002

ATHENS Washington is legendary for the oppressiveness of its summer heat. Greece in August is hotter but much drier. Tourists typically wander through narrow city streets and historic ruins with water bottles stuffed in purses or pockets to ward off dehydration. Indeed, summer seems scarcely a propitious time for touring this ancient cradle of democracy, let alone for staging an outdoor opera. Nevertheless, opera alfresco was on tap in both ancient Nemea and bustling Athens last month, providing a perfect excuse for a short, intriguing jaunt to the European Union's easternmost country.

The original home of the Olympics is being busily spruced up for the Summer Games' long-awaited return to Athens in 2004. Streets are being improved, buildings are being tidied, and massive restoration is under way at many of the country's priceless architectural treasures, including the famous Parthenon. The return of the Games also has sparked a resurgent interest in Greek art, culture, science and history and a renewed sense of national pride among all Greek citizens.

Sensing this excitement, Michael Sisk, a veteran producer and the director of the new French American Center for the Arts in Paris, decided to catch the wave. The center, dedicated to European and American cultural exchange, opened last year in quarters opposite the American Embassy and has just begun to assemble an ambitious schedule of events. What better way to link the center's international mission to modern Greece, Mr. Sisk reasoned, than to mount a series of operas with an international cast staged in the open air amid the backdrop of Greece's famous archaeological sites?

Mr. Sisk did his homework and decided to stage his first opera, George Frideric Handel's rarely performed “Hercules,” in the ruins of the Temple of Zeus at Nemea. The tie-ins were perfect. “The opera is about isolation,” Mr. Sisk says, and Nemea is certainly isolated, consisting today of just a few rural houses and vast groves of ancient olive trees, all located a good distance away from main population centers. Yet the area around Nemea abounds in myth and history.

Nemea was once home to the indestructible Nemean lion only Hercules, the son of Zeus, could kill it. In the distant hills beyond lie the ancient ruins of Agamemnon's palace, the Maecenean fortress from which the ill-fated king dispatched his armies to the Trojan War. The region's largest municipality, the picture-perfect, castle-crowned seaside city of Nafplion, was briefly the capital of the newly united Greek Republic in the 19th century before the seat of government was removed permanently to Athens. Nemea itself was one of the early venues for what eventually became the modern Olympic Games.

The Nemean games stretch back to a legend of antiquity. Hypsipyle, the nurse in charge of the baby Opheltes, son of Lykourgos, the local ruler of Nemea, left the infant alone for a moment in a field of wild celery one day, just long enough for him to be bitten fatally by a poisonous snake. The anguished king ordered a stadium to be built, and the first Nemean games were held there around 573 B.C. both as a funeral celebration and as an attempt to assuage the gods who had allowed this tragedy to occur. The games were on-and-off happenings over the next three centuries, eventually leaving Nemea around 271 B.C., never to return, primarily because of Nemea's isolation.

“Nemea was essentially a swamp that was eventually drained. It was not arable but was good pastureland,” says Stephen G. Miller, a professor in the Department of Classics at the University of California at Berkeley. He has been coming to Nemea regularly each summer since 1973 to study, excavate artifacts and direct restoration of the ancient ruins of the temple and the stadium.

“Zeus was honored as a shepherd here,” he says, which also is why the area served as the site of various temples erected to curry favor with this greatest of all ancient gods.

The most substantial Temple of Zeus was constructed here around 330 B.C., according to Mr. Miller, and it is these ruins that he has been patiently attempting to reconstruct. The temple, it seems, was not destroyed in an earthquake as was formerly believed. Mr. Miller was able to prove that it was toppled by early Christians who used the stones to build a basilica on the site around 435. The basilica now is also in ruins. Mr. Miller is working to raise all the ancient columns upright once again.

The ruins of the Nemean Temple of Zeus, intertwined as they are with the heroic tales of Hercules, seemed an ideal location for the American Center for the Art's first production of Handel's “Hercules.” The original plan was for the opera to be staged directly in front of the walls of this ancient shrine. Not only would the floodlighted ruins prove a dramatic backdrop for the performance, but the remaining walls would serve as a shell, helping singers and musicians hear while concentrating and reflecting the sound toward the audience.

Handel's opera derives its plot from Sophocles' classic play “The Women of Trachis.” Returning in triumph from battle with a trophy princess in tow, Hercules expects an enthusiastic welcome from his wife, Dejanira, but Dejanira can only see her husband being distracted by the beautiful Iole. She plots to regain his love by getting him to wear a magic cloak that has been dipped in the blood of the centaur, Nessos, when the hero prepares his ritual sacrifice to Zeus. Unfortunately, what Dejanira thinks is a love charm is actually a fatal poison, and Hercules, upon donning the cloak, is destroyed by it. Handel's opera ends on a more positive note with Hercules' son winning over Princess Iole as his betrothed.

Mr. Sisk and his conductor and music director, David Stern, whittled the opera's running time down to about 1½hours, a necessity in Greece's summer heat. By compressing the action, they felt, they could focus on the essence of the opera's theme. “Each character is in his own world,” says Mr. Sisk, who directed the production, “and they are running parallel time paths, not really acting together. The results are tragic, but Handel allowed for the promise that the two young persons may be able to make a future together.”

Maestro Stern, son of the late violinist Isaac Stern and himself a fixture in musical Europe, was responsible for choosing the opera's exciting young cast, according to Mr. Sisk. “I know all the singers quite well,” Mr. Stern says, “having worked with many of them before.”

Unfortunately, with all in readiness as the date for the Nemean performances approached, Greek government officials decided against allowing the opera to be staged amid the actual temple ruins. At the last minute, the entire company had to scramble to improvise a makeshift stage a few hundred feet away on the grassy knoll behind the adjacent Archaeological Museum of Nemea. The orchestra was assembled on a platform facing the singers, and an acoustical shell was tacked hurriedly onto the back of the stand to reflect the sound toward the singers and the audience, which flanked the orchestra.

The improvisation worked rather well for the small baroque orchestra but less so for the determined young singers. Nuance was not possible, being wafted away in the dry acoustics of the grass and the open air. Nonetheless, this was a valiant and haunting performance, well-acted and effectively choreographed. Most impressive were the chief soloists. As Dejanira, Ning Liang was haughty and imperious, her creamy mezzo-soprano voice conveying heartbreak and menace in each line.

As Hercules, bass-baritone Simon Bailey swaggered through his role with great authority and impeccable diction, every inch a hero, but not the kind of caring guy to put a jealous wife at ease.

As Princess Iole, soprano Anna Ryberg soared in her arias with a delicate, golden-throated soprano tailor-made to handle Handel's complex baroque figures with ease. In short, in spite of all the obstacles, this was a generally satisfying evening of Handel. Given more singer-friendly venues, this accessible production will prove a winner.

After opening in Nemea, “Hercules” next moved to the Athens Festival, where it was mounted in the outdoor Herodian Theater near the Acropolis. There will be more performances around the world, according to Michael Sisk.

“We plan to be in Paris in January of 2003 and in Berlin a year from now. We hope to visit America as well and are working to schedule performances in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and other cities,” he says.

Mr. Stern also is enthusiastic about bringing this production to a variety of venues. Though he has spent his career almost exclusively in Europe, he is hoping to conduct “Hercules” and some additional concerts in America, “perhaps in 2004 or 2005.”

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