Opera North is the first opera company in the UK to have been awarded the status of Theatre of Sanctuary, its involvement with those seeking refuge in the Leeds locality going far beyond any normal outreach programme. Staging Martinů’s rarely seen last opera, The Greek Passion (1957), whose subject is social displacement, therefore meant more than merely striving to put on a good show. Christopher Alden’s production, conducted by Garry Walker, the company’s music director designate, is certainly that: musically outstanding, striking in its depiction of Greek village life where simultaneous events – the staging of a passion play and the arrival of refugees – unsettle the community. Little wonder the performance of this lyrical, attractive but uneven piece (in an edition reconstructed by Aleš Brézina) had particular veracity.
Charles Edwards’s designs, a bank of retractable seating with white effigies to depict the faceless refugees, provided effective, simple imagery. Chorus and soloists – including Stephen Gadd, Paul Nilon, Magdalena Molendowska and, especially, John Savournin – excelled. The opera builds towards the shepherd Manolios’s soliloquy on charity. Chosen to play Christ, quiet at first, he struggles to match human instinct to this divine task until it bursts out of him, to tragic end. The tenor Nicky Spence, singing with open-hearted eloquence, made us think anew about the meaning of compassion.