THE IMPORTANCE OF A CLASSICAL LEGACY. The writer Marina Valensise was recently appointed CEO of the Italian National Institute of Ancient Drama (Istituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico, INDA) which manages the ancient Greek Theatre of Syracuse. Valensise was formerly head of the Special Secretariat of the Italian Minister for Cultural Heritage, Alberto Ronchey, and from 2012 to 2016 she was Director of the Italian Institute of Culture in Paris.
Marina Valensise, does all your previous experience come into play in your role as CEO of the ancient Greek theatre in Syracuse?
Yes, it sums up all my different experiences, and this is why I’m so gratified, although it’s not an easy job. You have to cope with many varied aspects, from local politics, to interest groups, to the coronavirus pandemic emergency and now war, to weather and the whimsical attitudes of very sensitive artists. You have to be very confident in your own means, listen to others, and know that it’s a job where your mission is to work with people as a group. Being a writer, I know that you can work on your own, but in this role you have to be able to deal with a team.
What is the story of INDA?
The INDA Foundation was started in1913 by a group of liberal aristocrats in Sicily who wanted both to renew the ancient Greek Theatre of Syracuse and to reinvigorate European theatre through classical works.
How long has this theatre existed?
Since the 5th century before Christ, when Syracuse was one of the most powerful empires in the Mediterranean. The theatre was built on a hill dedicated to Apollo called Colle Temenite. At that time the Greek theatre was not only a place to set plays of comedy and tragedy, but was specially devoted to the civic religion of Syracuse. It was needed to re-establish links within the community, and farmers and peasants were paid to go to theatre.
Greek presence was not only strong in Sicily but also in many parts of Italy, including Naples. Is the ancient Greek tradition part of the origins of the Italian tradition?
Why do we call this area Magna Graecia?
Syracuse, Catania, Agrigento, all the eastern coast of Sicily up to Messina were colonies of Greek cities. But some scholars follow an older tradition that it was called Magna Graecia because the ancient original population of Pelasgi were rooted in southern Italy in the region that is now called Calabria. From there they spread all around the Mediterranean. Following this ancient Pythagorean tradition, Magna Graecia is not so called due to the expansion of Greek cities, but, on the contrary, it represents the mythological pelasgian origin of the original Greek population.
They spoke Greek, and they were speaking it in Syracuse. It was a Greek city. It was conquered by the Romans, but you can feel in every corner of the town the legacy of the ancient Greeks. The Acropolis of Syracuse is now Piazza del Duomo, the Dome of Syracuse devoted to Santa Lucia that is built on the ancient Acropolis and on the Temple of Minerva. You can still see the Doric columns that are used as the pilasters in the building of the church.
“At that time the Greek theatre was not only a place to set plays of comedy and tragedy, but was specially devoted to the civic religion of Syracuse.”
The Greek Theatre in its full capacity, before the pandemic
Marina Valensise, what is the history of the enormous theatre?
The golden age was when Syracuse was a huge, important port and one of the most powerful cities in the Mediterranean. Half of Sicily belonged to Dionysius I, the tyrant of Syracuse who was the host of Plato, as Hieron was previously the host of Aeschylus, who wrote “Women of Mount Aetna” for him and staged his play “The Persians” in Syracuse. After the Roman conquest the theatre was still used, as a set for Roman theatre, but then there was a continuous decline linked to Christianity and the Middle Ages, where the theatrical experience was not really allowed because the ecclesiastical community was more important than the civic community.
Did the theatre become a religious place?
No, the theatre was abandoned. King Charles V occupied Syracuse during the Renaissance and he took the stones of the ancient Greek theatre to rebuild the fortress of the island of Ortigia. They used the theatre as a quarry in order to build the Renaissance town.
Does musical theatre originate from this ancient background?
Melodrama, musical theatre, was born when a group of artists, musicians, intellectuals, and composers such as the father of Galileo Galilei, assembled together at the Camerata de’ Bardi in Florence to study the Greek tragedies. They invented opera. Monteverdi, Jacopo Peri, Caccini, Emilio de’ Cavalieri, the great founders of Melodrama, started by studying ancient Greek Drama Theatre.
When was the Greek Theatre of Syracuse rebuilt?
The Greek Theatre was never rebuilt. It is a monumental ruin, but it still works because INDA creates an audience that watches the shows that we set up every year. At the end of the 19th century, a great archaeologist called Paolo Orsi – the founder of Modern Archaeology in Italy who was the superintendent of archaeology in southern Italy – launched excavation campaigns in and around Syracuse. He was surrounded by a group of patrons, liberal aristocrats who were fond of the antiquities which they thought were the real science of life, the real patrimony to restore in order to give strength to modern times. One of them was Count Tommaso Mario Gargallo, an eclectic artist, a sculptor and a very great humanist who knew Greek history. He could read Greek and with his brother, Filippo Gargallo, he decided to finance the rebirth of the Greek theatre, not only in terms of safeguarding the monument, but especially in terms of its function.
Acting. At the beginning of the 20th century all around Europe there was this idea to go back to classical popular theatre. The fashionable Bayreuth Festival by Wagner was one of the first to re-found modern theatre through popular religious experience. The Gargallo brothers financed the rebirth and the safeguarding of the monument, but they also financed a civic committee that called on a very famous academician and translator, called Ettore Romagnoli who knew Sicily very well. They charged him to set some plays that were written in the 5th century before Christ, and the first cycle that Romagnoli set up was the “Oresteia” trilogy by Aeschylus: “Agamemnon”, “The Libation Bearers” and “The Eumenides”. In 1913 the play of Agamemnon started the INDA Foundation, and seven years later, in 1921, after the interruption due to the First World War and the Spanish flu pandemic, with the same Romagnoli they staged the second act of “Oresteia”, “The Libation Bearers”.
Your appointment as CEO of INDA was made two years ago by the Italian Ministry of Culture. When did the state get involved?
At the beginning, from 1913 up to 1925, it was just a civic committee composed by Fratelli Gargallo and a bunch of elite liberal aristocrats and professionals of Syracuse and Sicily. Mussolini came to power in October 1922 and was so impressed by this renaissance of antique theatre that two years later he decided to transform the committee into Istituto Nazionale del Dramma Antico, INDA. Since then the governance was always splintered, because the city of Syracuse, the founders, have a very important, strong and influential role. From 1913 to 1928 the artistic direction was given to Ettore Romagnoli. Then he was dismissed and replaced.
“The Italian language evolves and to set up a show of the fifth century BC you have to adapt it to the language that you speak nowadays.”
Marina Valensise, what is your job as CEO of INDA?
I am on the board, which decides the cultural direction and artistic choices; what the foundation has to do, its main objectives and aims. I sign the budget, and I am responsible for all that is concerned with administration.
How long is your season?
Two and a half months. Every year we have three shows, generally two tragedies and one comedy. We are not only a public theatre, but we are also a research centre, an archive, a library. Every year we ask for a new translation, and this year the new translation of Oedipus Rex is by Francesco Morosi, a young scholar from Normale di Pisa, who rewrote and retranslated Sophocles’ text. The Italian language evolves and to set up a show of the fifth century BC you have to adapt it to the language that you speak nowadays. This is a very important and consistent effort for us. We’re very proud also to announce this year the great translation done by Giorgio Ieranò, a professor at Trento University who is one of the most talented Italian Greek scholars. He translated the “Iphigenia in Tauris” that will be staged by Jacopo Gassmann as the third work. Whereas the “Oresteia” trilogy by Aeschylus – “Agamemnon”, “The Libation Bearers” and “The Eumenides” – is translated by Walter Lapini.
Did you close during the pandemic?
We did not, because in 2020 we set up a short season called “Per Voci Sole” with 8 shows. There were no great shows with masses of artists and hundreds of chorus, showmen and singers. We concentrated on eight monologues, and we chose eight great popular actors, amongst them Laura Morante and Luigi Lo Cascio.
Is Robert Carsen one of the directors this year?
Robert Carsen will direct “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles; it will be his debut in Syracuse. He’s a very famous opera director, but he’s also a complete theatre man. He was in Salzburg last year with Handel’s “Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno”. He was at La Scala with a reprise of a “Don Giovanni” production, and at the beginning of May 2022 at Opera Bastille with “Elektra” by Strauss whose libretto was written by Hugo von Hoffmannsthal. The premiere of Carsen’s “Oedipus Rex” in Syracuse is on May 18th, and it will be the most eagerly anticipated show of this 57th season. On May 17th Davide Livermore, who is also a great opera director, will stage another very important premiere “Agamemnon”. And on June 17th Jacopo Gassmann will be staging “Iphigenia in Tauris”, the drama about the daughter of Agamemnon who was sacrificed because of the war, and she was saved by Artemis and placed in the Tauris land, that is the actual Crimea.
Your audience comes from all over the world and the performances are in Italian. Do you have surtitles?
No, we cannot, there is nowhere suitable for them. The ceiling of the theatre is the sky, and the backstage of the theatre is the sea. It’s an open space. The ancient Greek theatre myths are universally known. When you talk about Oedipus you know that it is not only about incest, because it’s the story of the quest of the truth by a man who doesn’t know that he has married his mother, that he has killed his father, and who slowly, little by little, discovers his destiny.
How many does the theatre hold?
This year, after two years of pandemic, we return to the full capacity of 5,000. There are 45 shows: 20 of “Oedipus”, 15 of “Agamemnon” and 10 of “Iphigenia”. We are looking forward to a lot of people coming from all over the world, from Australia, from California, from Wisconsin, from Massachusetts.
Does all this give Syracuse a new cultural prestige?
Enormous, and it is not only prestige but also of great economic value. We have calculated that for every Euro invested in a theatrical performance the revenue that goes to the town is multiplied by eight.
A Class at the ADDA, Accademia d’Arte Del Dramma Antico, INDA’s Actors School. Photo by Franca Centaro.
A scene from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, directed by Robert Carsen. Creon (interpreted by Paolo Mazzarelli) helps Oedipus who is blinded by shame (interpreted by Giuseppe Sartori). Photo by Tommaso Le Pera.
A scene from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, directed by Robert Carsen. The dialogue between Tiresias (interpreted by Graziano Pazza) and Oedipus (interpreted by Giuseppe Sartori). Photo by Tommaso Le Pera.
A performance of Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers directed by Davide Livermore at the ancient Greek Theatre in 2021
A scene from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, directed by Davide Livermore: Clitemnestra (interpreted by Laura Marinoni) and Egisto (interpreted by Stefano Santospago) kill Cassandra (interpreted by Linda Gennari) in front of the ghost of Iphigenia. Photo by Tommaso Le Pera.
Scene from Aeschlus’ Agamemnon, directed by Davide Livermore. The diabolic couple of Argos, Clitemnestra (interpreted by Laura Marinoni) and Egisto (interpreted by Stefano Santospago). Photo by Tommaso Le Pera.
“Since I am from Southern Italy it is a great moral gratification to have the opportunity to show the importance of the classical legacy in a modern contemporary way.”
Marina Valensise, who are the actors?
Famous artists who are able to play in a huge open air theatre. They must be very athletic and charismatic. Not every actor has these qualities. This year Maddalena Crippa will play Jocasta, the wife and mother of Oedipus. Oedipus is played by Giuseppe Sartori, and we have many other actors who are very famous in their field, like Linda Gennari who plays Cassandra, and Anna Della Rosa who plays Iphigenia.
How are the acoustics?
Absolutely perfect, because the theatre is sculptured on a hill. You can even hear whispers from wherever you are sitting.
If it rains do you cancel the performance?
No, we don’t. Until now we have always been very lucky because generally the gods are with us. When the Sun goes down and the shows start, the weather is generally nice. We hope that this year we will not have any surprises.
What do you do for the rest of the year?
To organise such a huge show, with 400 people involved, you have to prepare all the sets, all the sonography, all the costumes. We start work in December. We also organise a classical studies conference every year and publish a review called “Dioniso, Rivista di Studi sul Teatro Antico”, directed by Guido Paduano, who is one of the most important Italian specialists of Greek literature and a great translator. Last year he translated Euripides’ “The Bacchantes”.
Are you in competition with the Greek theatre that is performed in Greece?
There is no competition, there is collaboration, because many of our shows are staged in Epidaurus. There is a very intense exchange that originates from Italy, and last year, for instance, we launched a series of conferences. For every show we arranged a conference through the Italian Cultural Institute in Athens, in London, in New York, and in Madrid, Barcelona and in Buenos Aires.
You are also a writer. What are your plans for that aspect of your career?
Since I am from Southern Italy it is a great moral gratification to have the opportunity to show the importance of the classical legacy in a modern contemporary way, but I still work as a writer and write articles for newspapers and essays. My last book is a biography of Luciana Frassati Gawronska, an Italian liberal born in the famous Turin family who were the founders of La Stampa. I’m working on a new book that is a collection of essays called On the Edge of the Abyss, Europe on the Edge of the Second World War. It is the story of a bunch of intellectuals, writers and artists, and they are represented in a narrative essay. I consider it a new attempt to write a unique history of Europe.
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Portrait of Marina Valensise by Tommaso Le Pera.