UTHE Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) wrote 16 operas. His The Greek Passion is currently touring in a dramatic and memorable staging by the director Christopher Alden and conductor Garry Walker for Opera North.
Martinu often touched on mythology, but also on religious subjects, as in Hry o Marii (The Plays of Mary, 1935); Narození I Páne (The Nativity of Our Lord); and the current drama, written at the end of his life, which he based on the novel O Christos Xanastavronetai (Christ Recrucified) by the Cretan-born writer and poet Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957).
Like the novel, it is a work both intense and rich in invented characters, introduced during preparations for a Passion play to be presented in the village of Lykovrissi.
Martinu spent much of his life in Paris, and the European avant-garde of the 1930s could not but have affected, and indeed attracted, him. His output, wide-ranging in style, is a fusion of the traditional and the forward-looking. In this late opera, perhaps his best-known, this intermixing works to fine effect.
David Pountney, highly knowledgeable about Czech opera, mounted a most memorable production in 1999 at his lakeside Festival at Bregenz, Austria, and then in 2000 at the Royal Opera House. There, levels in the set (a huge array of scaffolding and platforms) played a signicant part. In this production, too, levels — a battery of stepped bare wooden seating (the set designer is Charles Edwards, whose lighting detail is always apt), are important, if, perhaps, not used to full effect.
Sometimes, however, by its separation of personalities, effect at moments of confrontation, or acting as a foundation for the very competent massed chorus of villagers (two assistant directors were also to hand to marshal them), this deliberately bald layout works to advantage. It avoid the dangers of an old-fashioned kitsch village, cottage, and backcloth evocation.
The characters are well drawn: not least, the bossy, inhibiting, and morose local priest, Fr Grigoris (Stephen Gadd), whose unwillingness to budge kindles and heightens the increasingly volatile villagers’ moods. A series of individuals, largely opposed to him, stand out: the frantic Panait, as Judas (the tenor Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, a veteran of such parts, who cut his teeth with Opera North); Manolios (Nicky Spence), the shepherd chosen to play Christ, and very aptly dressed by the American costume designer Doey Lüthi, who eventually kills Panait on the church steps; the fretful Yannakos (Paul Nilon, another Leeds alumnus); and especially the woman Katerina (Magdalena Molendowska, a doyenne of Polish opera — not just in Warsaw, but Cracow, Wroclaw, Gdansk, Bialystok), making her Opera North debut, and designated to play Mary Magdalene in the Passion.
But the real star of the show, without a shadow of doubt, is the Sheffield-born John Savournin, as the refugee priest Fotis. He is a refugee, because a group of the Greek chorus have had their village burned to the ground by the Turks, an occupying power until Greek independence in 1822. Fotis is a pacifying figure, but, sadly, not a unifying one. The rankling between the villagers, originally violently opposed to allowing sanctuary to the incomers, is a constant element, always heightened by several well-played figures, alternately leaders or followers.
Amid the commentary of organ and church bells, the love aspect, inseparable from opera, and here focused on a prospective marriage, is a central factor. It, too, sets the villagers at odds with one another. As staccato bursts emerge in the woodwind and brass (hints here of Janácek) Fotis’s sympathetic charisma becomes central to the pathos of this profoundly involving story that explores the relationship between the characters and the Passion-play parts in which they are cast.
Savournin’s capturing of his part — he is in effect the conscience of the whole entourage — becomes the most important factor, and his efforts to convert the two contrasting flocks to Christian love and dignity are the most moving feature of the entire superbly crafted opera.
The Greek Passion is at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, tomorrow evening, and then at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham (Saturday 9 November), and The Lowry, Salford Quays (Saturday 16 November). Phone 0113 223 3600.