19 Sep 2019

Martinů's gripping Greek Passion from Opera North

You can literally count on the fingers of one hand the UK presentations of Martinů's final opera, The Greek Passion: Welsh National Opera in 1981, Royal Opera in 2000 (both under Charles Mackerras), a revival four years later, and now this new production from Opera North.

After its rejection by Covent Garden, which had originally commissioned the work for performance (in English) in 1958, the opera was extensively revised, including the removal of its spoken dialogue, and it premiered in Zurich in 1961 - two years after the composer’s death.

Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel Christ Recrucified and staged in its reconstructed original version, the work’s moral weight, underlining humanity's grim record of spiritual and political failure, comes at a time when its plea for tolerance and Christian charity could not be more relevant. It is no coincidence that in recognition of its initiatives for refugees and asylum seekers Opera North is the first opera company in the UK to be awarded Theatre Company of Sanctuary status.

So why has this score taken so long to be fully appreciated? It’s very much a people’s opera; direct, uncomplicated and very moving. It tells the tale of a remote Greek community preparing for its traditional Passion play. Disturbed by the arrival of a group of starving refugees whose homes have been burnt by neighbouring Turks, the villagers are divided between offering help and turning their backs. Along the way, those cast in the Easter play begin to assume aspects of the characters they portray and as Manolios (the local shepherd boy) as Christ and his Apostles grow quite literally into their roles the village elders fear for their own spiritual authority and a fatal outcome is the tragic denouement.

Paul Nilon.jpgPaul Nilon (Yannakos). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

Director Christopher Alden opts for a minimal set and modern dress and, with designer Charles Edwards, provides an unflinching commentary on society’s response to asylum seekers, representing the refugees as lifeless mannequins - a nod perhaps to Anthony Gormley’s figures, with their identical and expressionless faces. But right at the start, before the villagers appear for their Eastertide lots, a lone plaster figure is seen carried off stage, an ambiguous gesture conveying kindly support or calculated removal. Consideration for the refugees is shown by Manolios (Nicky Spence) and Katerina/Mary Magdalene (Magdalena Molendowska) who offer food and shelter the refugees on a nearby mountainside, its steep contours evoked by the tiered staging. Indifference comes from the village’s cold-hearted priest Grigoris (Stephen Gadd) who blames the death of one of the newcomers on cholera, and the refugee’s corpse floats skywards but remains visible to haunting effect.

John Savournin Priest.jpg John Savournin (Priest Fotis, front), Paul Nilon (Yannakos, back) with the Chorus of Opera North. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

Alden has updated some of the text, including a humorous cry of “bloody vegans”, and the refugees’ plea “give us what you have too much of” hangs in block lettering over the stage as a reminder of their plight. Lighter touches include an egg-throwing Easter Bunny (its ritualistic generosity clearly only temporary), an onstage Klezmer-style trio play for the rustic wedding celebrations of Niklios (Alex Banfield) and Lenio (Lorna James), and a local postman Yannakos (Paul Nilon) who makes his deliveries on a bicycle. Beyond these comic interventions, there is a dark centre to this staging, most obviously conveyed by Manolios whose burden of a wooden cross forms the work’s central drama within a drama.

Nicky Spence Greek Passion.jpgNicky Spence (Manolios), with the Chorus of Opera North. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

Musically, The Greek Passion dazzles too, weaving its spoken text into an eclectic procession of styles bearing cinematic delivery: Greek Orthodox chant rubs shoulders with folk-inspired passages, opulently scored scenes yield to a single strand with ethnic colouring, and there’s even a passage straight out of Music Theatre redolent of Leonard Bernstein. Above all, it’s a vivid score marked by an ardent lyricism, to which the Orchestra of Opera North under their musical director designate Garry Walker respond with much refinement.

Magdalena Molendowska.jpgMagdalena Molendowska (Katerina). Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

There’s tremendous commitment too from a well-chosen cast that includes the radiant soprano of Magdalena Molendowska, Nicky Spence’s clarion tenor, as the tormented Manolios, and a well-projected Paul Nilon as the appealing Yannakos. Stephen Gadd wields a rich baritone as the assertive and scheming Priest and John Savournin commands our sympathy as the refugees' spiritual guide, Fotis. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts convinces too as a beer-swilling Judas, as does Steven Page's Captain, an addled war veteran. Finally, the expanded Opera North Chorus are all on excellent form, relishing their sacred and secular input.

David Truslove

Grigoris - Stephen Gadd, Archon - Jonathan Best, Captain - Steven Page, Schoolmaster - Ivan Sharpe, Father Ladas - Jeremy Peaker, Kostandis - Richard Mosley-Evans, Dmitri - Christopher Nairne, Manolios - Nicky Spence, Yannakos - Paul Nilon, Michelis - Rhodri Prys Jones, Panait - Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Andonis - Campbell Russell, Nikolio - Alex Banfield, Lenio - Lorna James, Katerina - Magdalena Molendowska, Fotis - John Savournin, Despino - Amy Freston, Old Man - Dean Robinson; Director - Christopher Alden, Conductor - Garry Walker, Set/Lighting Designer - Charles Edwards, Costumes - Doey Lüthi, Choreographer - Tim Claydon, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North.

Grand Theatre, Leeds; Saturday 14th September 2019.