In Sicilia: Siracusa, at the Teatro Greco and on the Waterfront

Teatro Greco

Cold, blustery weather required us to postpone a visit to the Neapolis Archeological Site, but we got lucky the following day.

Orecchio di Dioniso

Orecchio di Dioniso

Caravaggio, on visiting the archeological sites in Siracusa, dubbed one of them “Dionysius’s Ear” (Orecchio di Dioniso).

According to legend, Dionysius used the cave as a prison, spying on his captives from the small opening at the top of the cave where even whispers from the cavern below could be clearly heard. Recent investigations, however, have found this myth to be implausible . . . . Another more gruesome tale holds that the sadistic emperor, rather than listening for secrets, took satisfaction in hearing the amplified screams of his prisoners as they were tortured. [citation]

I’m pleased to report that, while we were there, the only sound we heard was from a young man testing the acoustics by singing an aria from inside the cave.

Teatro Greco

Teatro Greco

Perhaps the only thing more unimaginable than standing on the very spot where it’s said that plays by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus were performed—in some cases with the playwright in attendance—was to be there without another soul around. I only wish I’d thought to bring along Anne Carson’s An Oresteia; perhaps I could have read a bit of her translation of Agamemnon aloud:


Gods! Free me from this grind!
It’s one long year I’m lying here watching
Waiting watching waiting—
propped on the roof of Atreus, chin on my
paws like a dog.

[from Anne Carson, An Oresteia, p. 11]

Or perhaps best not . . .

Ortygia waterfront

Siracusa Waterfront

In the afternoon, the day was fine, so we took the opportunity to walk along the Ortygia waterfront. At the edge of the sea is a freshwater spring, dubbed the Fonte Aretusa. John Julius Norwich wrote of it, “So fresh and copious was the water than in June 1798 Nelson used it to provision his fleet of fourteen ships.” [Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, footnote, p. 6]

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Listening list

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), Oresteia for chorus and 12 instruments (1965–66)


Solo Bar; children’s chorus, mixed chorus (18 men and 18 women, or multiples thereof) doubling perc: wood simantras/metal simantras/whips/sirens/metal sheets/maracas

1(=picc).1.0.Ebcl.dbcl.0.dbn-1.1(=picc.tpt).1.1-perc(3):2timp(sm,lg)/2bongos/SD/BD(lg)/2wdbl/2lion’s roar/2gongs(sm,lg)/2tamb(without jingles)/whip/4tom-t/2nylon brushes(long bristles)/2maracas/thunder-sheet(lg)/glsp-vlc

Each instrumentalist (except percussionists) doubles on each of tgl/tamb(varying pitch,without jingles)/siren/glass chimes/whip/metal sheets/lion’s roar/rattles

Audience plays metal simantras [citation]

Like other composers writing music for the Oresteia in the 20th century . . . Xenakis evidently strove for the elemental and the hieratic, as if to evoke the remoteness of the source material in the act of making it so very present. . . . Many of the chorus’s contributions . . . suggest that the lineage of Greek drama can be traced straight through to the chant of the Orthodox church. . . .

In 1967, Xenakis recast his . . . score as a 40-minute concert piece. Twenty years later, he brought the music back to the stage and added a new section, Kassandra, for a performance amid the ruins of Gibellina, Sicily. This was only a few kilometers from the burial place of Aeschylus at Gela . . .

Full program notes from which the above excerpt was taken may be found here.


Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. As always on the blog, the photographs, unless otherwise indicated, are mine.




6 thoughts on “In Sicilia: Siracusa, at the Teatro Greco and on the Waterfront

  1. hilarymb

    Hi Susan – you’ve given us a marvellous tour of Sicily – and I know where to come if and when I get a chance to visit … just amazing … thanks so much – cheers Hilary

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Hilary: I hope you will get to Sicily sometime. I think that, with your intrepid curiosity, you’d discover many, many things I’ve not spotted or captured in these posts.

  2. David N

    I remember realising up there with the amphitheatre and Dionysus’s ear that ancient things were on a bigger scale in Sicily than in the rest of Italy. It seemed a world away from the baroque cosiness of Ortygia.

  3. larrymuffin

    I remember this site well, we were there when the Greek Theatre Festival was in full swing. It was amazing. We visited the site of the Ear cave and its sad story. Such an interesting place.

Comments are closed.