It’s a hot summer’s evening; overhead is a soft, purple-black and star-strewn sky. The incessant chirrup of cicadas mingles with the murmur of thousands of voices – Turkish, German, English, Russian – and the popping of corks, as the 15,000-strong audience settles down, passes round wine and olives and eagerly awaits the entertainment ahead. All are perched on hard, solid marble, still warm from the heat of the day, but the discomfort is a small price to pay to experience what a Roman citizen would have 1800 years ago, when this theatre, the largest and best preserved in Asia Minor, was built.
The views from the semicircular auditorium, its forty tiers cut into the hillside, are magnificent. At sunset, the fading light on the remains of this once wealthy and powerful city and the Pamphylian plain beyond shows it at its best. There’s a faint taste of the nearby Mediterranean on the breeze and the Taurus mountain range stands in splendid silhouette to the north.
The stage lights play across the facade of the multilevel stage building, ornamented with Ionic and Corinthian columns, niches that once sported marble statues and elaborate friezes and pediments. The lights dim and the massed ranks of spectators fall silent. Slowly the intensity of the lights increases and the show begins. Maybe it’s Verdi’s Aida, set in ancient Egypt, whose pomp and splendour match the setting perfectly.
Afterwards, close to midnight, throngs of people – having suspended disbelief for a few memorable hours – disgorge into the night, scrambling not for their chariots but for cars and buses as reality sets in and the ancient entertainments are left behind.
The Aspendos Festival takes place for three to four weeks, starting in mid-June. Try www.operabale.gov.tr or www.aspendosfestival.gov.tr