Musical America 26 September 2019
The Royal Opera aside, and passing respectfully over good work done by smaller outfits like English Touring Opera, most of the publicly supported British opera companies seem locked in a constant struggle with their finances and their identities. The Leeds-based Opera North, though, consistently fires on all cylinders and treats its north-of-England parish to exciting, imaginative programming and an extraordinary level of outreach work. Last December it was awarded Theatre Company of Sanctuary status in recognition of its efforts to give voice to the stories of refugees and asylum seekers. Which makes the choice of The Greek Passion to open ON’s new season seems almost inevitable.
Bohuslav Martinů’s 14th and final opera was the one he wrote twice. If you’re familiar with the 1981 Supraphon recording conducted by Charles Mackerras, which brought the 1959 revised score to wider attention, the 1957 original will sound like a different work. The composer wrote his own libretto based on the novel Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kasantzakis and the spine of it serves both versions. Yet there is a shock of differences between them.
It has grown common of late for productions of this opera to revert to the original version, using an edition that was painstakingly tracked down on the four winds by Aleš Březina, who then reconstructed it for performance at the 1999 Bregenz Festival. Now Opera North follows suit. However, this adherence to first principles is questionable for a number of reasons. First, as far as we know nobody pushed Martinů to rewrite it; the decision was entirely his own and was undertaken, one suspects, because he wanted to make the work more commercially attractive. (He had been stung by Covent Garden’s rejection of this English-language project and may have wanted to sugar the pill before offering it on to Zurich Opera.) Second, the original’s structure is fragmentary and uninvolving, almost Brechtian in its alienation and hamstrung by an extended coda that drains away the tension. The orchestral writing is vivid but stark, a savage sound picture only occasionally leavened by welcome relief from accordion or harp. Third, the rewritten version (‘Christ Recrucified Recrucified’, perhaps) has a melodic sweep and dramatic assurance that place it in the Bohemian lineage of Janáček and even Dvořák. Its structure is better balanced, its characterizations more convincingly achieved than in his initial draft. That’s how it Martinů chose to leave it when he succumbed to illness exactly 60 years ago.
In Březina’s program note he reminds us that Martinů campaigned to purge opera of “psychologizing dross”. Puzzling, then, that the company has hired New York’s king of psychological overlay, Christopher Alden, to direct its new production. While the result is handsome in execution its very austerity mitigates against a complete emotional engagement with such a highly charged story.
On Easter Sunday the elders of Lycovrissi, a small Greek village, gather to allocate roles in the following year’s Passion play. The shepherd Manolios is cast as Christ; but he takes his responsibilities too seriously for comfort and, to the consternation of the elders, reaches out to a group of refugees encamped nearby. It does not end well.
Tenor Nicky Spence, who sang Manolios, apologized for ill health on September 21, the night I attended, but there was no sign in his visceral performance that he was ailing. On the contrary, Britain’s leading Janáček tenor of today was vocally at home in a score that nourished his voice with choice cuts of ringing, near-heroic material. In acting terms he began the opera a lumbering man- child and ended it a martyr. If Spence had been allowed to interact more naturally with the other
characters he might have torn our souls, but such was the nature of Alden’s mannered staging that he was left to emote in a vacuum.
Designer Charles Edwards placed the drama on and around a towering yet mobile seating tier, seven rows in height, and used life-sized human plaster casts to represent the refugees. The flesh-and- blood bass John Savournin was their Priest and spokesperson. This staging device, in common with much of Alden’s concept, was effective for the storytelling but sterile as a depiction of human suffering.
Baritones Stephen Gadd as the Priest Grigoris and Jonathan Best as the wealthy Archon led the elders, while tenors Paul Nilon and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts were prominent among the villagers chosen to enact the Passion. Among a predominantly male cast the two female principals were pivotal, and both Lorna James as Lenio and Magdalena Molendowska as Katerina were outstanding as the women in the shepherd’s life. With the excellent Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North on superb form under the company’s principal conductor-designate, Garry Walker, a Scottish musician whose Billy Budd in Leeds a year or two back confirmed him as a talent for years to come, this Greek Passion transcended the obstacles of text and staging to provide a vivid, intense musical experience.