Opera review: The Greek Passion, Opera North; Don Giovanni and Werther, Royal Opera
Martinu’s patchy Passion gets a powerful Opera North treatment
Holding pattern: the Opera North chorus in Martinu’s The Greek Passion
The Sunday Times, September 22 2019, 12:01am
In typically adventurous style, Opera North opened its 2019-20 season with a regional touring production of Bohuslav Martinu’s operatic swan song, The Greek Passion, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s epic novel Christ Recrucified. This opera was famously rejected in 1957 by a subcommittee of the Covent Garden Opera Company, much to the consternation of its then music director, the great Czech conductor in exile Rafael Kubelik.
Kubelik clearly had an empathy not only with his compatriot’s score, but also with the subject matter: at Eastertide, village elders in Lycovrissi, Greece (under Ottoman rule in the novel), choose members of the community for leading roles in the annual Passion play. Their spokesman, the priest Grigoris, warns of the influx of a tribe of refugees seeking asylum from their Turkish oppressors. As the villagers take on characteristics of the parts they are playing, the shepherd Manolios, representing Christ, preaches charity and compassion towards the incomers. Grigoris denounces him as an apostate and incites the Judas character, Panait, to murder him. The refugees, realising they have lost their champion, move on.
It’s a powerful narrative, certainly, packed with interesting characters and biblical analogies — the widow Katerina, chosen to play Mary Magdalene and pursued by Panait/Judas, is physically attracted to Manolios — and it is splendidly performed in Leeds, conducted by Opera North’s music-director elect, Garry Walker, and simply staged by Christopher Alden, with enough political resonance to suggest analogies with our own time.
If there is a problem, as in 1957, it is with Martinu’s large-scale yet rarely unforgettable score. The prolific composer, adept in every genre, clearly struggled to find a distinctive “voice” in this cosmopolitan work, set to his own English libretto. For much of the evening, thanks to the heroic and touching central performance of Nicky Spence as Manolios, I thought fondly of Britten’s Peter Grimes, written a good decade earlier, but now a standard repertory piece, while The Greek Passion still hovers on the fringes.
Even so, this is one of ON’s great company shows, featuring a supporting cast that includes stalwart regulars such as Paul Nilon (Yannakos, the pedlar who plans to rob the refugees), Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Panait), Stephen Gadd (Grigoris) and John Savournin (the priest Fotis, the leader of the refugees). Magdalena Molendowska sings clear English words as a big-voiced Katerina. The chorus are so good, one wishes they had better music to sing.