A man in red robes carries a wooden cross on his back, bent double under its weight. Behind him, on raised seating, a white mannequin lies in a foetal position. These two potent symbols underpin Opera North’s new production of Martinu’s The Greek Passion, a parable about Christian charity and the plight of refugees. Staged with striking simplicity, the Czech composer’s final opera folds sacred teachings into a secular drama of strange power.
When a group of displaced people seek shelter in Lycovrissi, amid preparations for the traditional Passion play the villagers’ compassion is tested — and found wanting. The outcome is tragic. The play-within-a-play structure could overburden the plot, which is based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel Christ Recrucified, and you have to embrace its
moralising nature. Yet at its best The Greek Passion inspires deep reflection. The trick is, surely, to make the tale feel at once timeless and topical.
That’s what the director Christopher Alden and the set and lighting designer Charles Edwards achieve. In an era of mass migration it might have been tempting to milk the news. The programme booklet includes photos of the Calais Jungle, the US/Mexico border and Ukip’s “Breaking Point” billboard. On stage, however, John Savournin’s fervent Priest Fotis apart, the refugees are inanimate models; identical, dependent, dehumanised. The figures sit silently or are carried, the villagers singing their parts. It’s all the more impactful for avoiding politics.
Opera North opts for Ales Brezina’s reconstruction of the compelling original version, in English, just about getting away with updated asides about veganism and crisps. Yet there’s no doubt that Martinu’s music makes the heart weep and sing. Liturgical solemnity mingles with the colourful rhythms and inflections of folk music and it’s carried off with a theatrical flair that takes us from ominous timpani rolls to transcendent, tingling outpourings. The orchestra, under the music director designate Garry Walker, play with a suppleness and generosity that makes the score soar.
The cast puts in a strong ensemble performance. Nicky Spence is a sensitive, steadfast Manolios, the gentle shepherd subsumed by his acting role of Christ. Opposite him, Magdalena Molendowska’s Katerina is passionate and memorable. All around they find human weakness, whether it’s Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s tattooed Panait/Judas, Lorna James’s sparky Lenio or Stephen Gadd’s hypocritical Priest Grigoris. And the Chorus of Opera North is on fierce and fearless form, portraying the selfish callousness of a society that closes its doors on those in need.