A musical tragedy in two parts and one interlude based on a play by Nikos Kazantzakis
Old Man Bass
Orchestra: 3 3 4 3 – 4 4 3 1 – Timpani, Percussion, 2 Harps, Strings, and 6 trumpets on stage
Double mixed choir and ballet
The Masterbuilder is Kalomiris’ first opera (or «music drama» as he would prefer to call it), completed in 1915 and revised twice in 1929 and 1940. The play by Kazantzakis, by the same title, on which it is based, is in its turn based on a Greek folk tale about a bridge over the river of the city of Arta.. According to the tale and the related folk song used by Kalomiris at the start of Scene A, the bridge would never stand unless a human sacrifice was made.
Kazantzakis and Kalomiris expand the tale into a multi-symbolic drama of remarkable depth and power. The symbolism seems to refer to a number of psychological dialectic pairs such as success and failure, creativity and love, love and duty, freedom and marriage, father and daughter, love and death etc and to include their social projections in the juxtaposition of the conservative, god fearing «Harvesters» and their «Village Women» to the creative, daring «Builders» and «Gypsy Women», of the ambitious Protomastoras himself, a hero born free in a torn up tent, to the jealous Old Man, threatening everybody with inevitable death and to the proud Master who demands and orders a sacrifice, not knowing that it concerns his own daughter. The Singer is in love – pure unconsummated love – and is an artist. The Mother appears to know the dark secrets of the soul and the inevitable rules and laws of life. Smaragda, by far the most important and most difficult role, will resolve all the contradictions. She will walk, in love, to death, proud of her sexual union with Protomastoras, respecting her father’s orders, serving Protomastoras high ambition and society’s need, challenging the mean Harvesters and Village Women, obeying the rules Mother has set out.
A «good listener» should however approach the work simply as a «story» about people made of flesh and blood and not as a socio-psychoanalytical puzzle. The impact then of the drama is tremendous.
Kazantzaki’s poetry and Kalomiris’ music also seem to underline the modern Greek (as opposed to Classical or Byzantine) character of the situations, despite the universality of the theme. Kalomiris dedicated his work «To the Masterbuilder of Great Greece, Eleftherios Venizelos», the founder and leader of the liberal party and a national leader, whom he supported with fanatic devotion. This was a time when the realisation of Greece’s national aspirations, the «Great Idea», which included the liberation from Turkish rule of Smyrna (Izmir), Kalomiris’ birthplace, and of Constantinople (Istanbul), where he went to school, seemed imminent. Thus one of the symbolisms of the bridge that was clearly in Kalomiris’ mind, when writing Protomastoras, was building Great Greece.
The 1916 premiere, in Athens, divided a public used to much simpler and lighter entertainment. It gave rise to both enthusiastic reviews and produced both enemies and ardent admirers.
The vocal and orchestral writing present formidable difficulties and although the best Greek artists were used in some of the performances which took place during Kalomiris’ life (including soprano Maria Callas and conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos) it is doubtful that the overall standard of playing and singing of those days, allowed a really adequate performance.
The Protomastoras has not been performed since 1951. After World War II, interest in Kalomiris’ music seemed to diminish. In the 1980s, twenty years after his death, there was a revival of interest and many of his works were recorded for the first time. The Protomastoras was forgotten during the last 40 years, partly because the post-war wave of modernism seemed to push aside all «national» music, partly because of the formidable difficulties of the score, partly because Greeks needed to forget so evocative a composer as Kalomiris, so closely associated with the «Great Idea» which turned out to such great disappointment, in 1922, when a million Greeks were evacuated from Kalomiris’ birth place, Smyrna, set to fire by the Turks.
Hari Politopoulos, 1990