The Greek Passion

Bohuslav Martinu, after Nikos Kazantzakis

Opera North

The Lowry, Salford

16 November, 2019: 2hr 45min

Christ recrucified: Nicky Spence as Manolios in Opera North’s production of Martinů’s The Greek Passion. All pictures: Tristram Kenton

Opera North has put huge resources into this new production of Martinu’s last opera, seen here in the original, 1957-written version.

It needs a long cast list – there are 19 named roles in the programme, and none is overwhelmingly more important than the others – and the chorus members have a vital role to play, because it’s essentially about two communities and they represent both.

The villagers of Lycovrissi are to present a Passion play (the imagery of the opening tableau, in Christopher Alden’s production here, is reminiscent of the Oberammergau play, now only a few months away from its next round of performances).

Roles are allocated, almost too precisely true to life: Yannakos the postman will be Peter; young Michelis will be John; Katerina, a widow, and Panait, her drunken lover, will be the Magdalen and Judas respectively, and the shepherd Manolios will be Christ.

Manolios takes his role seriously – he studies the Bible with the other "apostles", and prepares to turn his back, at least for the time being, on marriage to his fiancee, Lenio.

Then village life is disrupted by the arrival of a crowd of refugees – not foreigners, but an entire uprooted community of fellow Greeks, with their own village priest, who have been forced from their homes by the Turks. They need food and a place to live.

But the priest of Lycovrissi, Grigoris, rejects them and persuades his flock to do the same. Only Manolios and his fellow disciples view them with compassion. The rest of the story works itself out as a real-life parallel to the rejection and killing of Jesus in the Passion story: in the end Manolios, having begun to persuade the villagers of the need to help those in need, is excommunicated and finally murdered.

It's a good tale – based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, who also wrote Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. If you look for them, there are echoes of the Gospel all the way through: Ladas, the miser, tries to lead Yannakos astray like Satan tempting Christ; the schoolmaster Ivan Sharpe becomes a Caiaphas, pronouncing of Manolios: "He’s dangerous, because no fault can be found in him"; before the final denouement, Manolios shares a parable with his "flock" like Jesus' Last Supper, and we hear that he is "…there, and in their midst". The chorus even quotes from the Song of Songs in the introduction to the wedding scene (Lenio now having rejected Manolios and hitched herself with someone else), including the ominous line that "…summer is ended, and we are not saved."

Martinu, who wrote the libretto himself, saw opera more as a theatre of ideas than an unveiling of psychological truth. He didn’t write long arias to reveal his characters’ innermost selves. What he wanted was drama, and story-telling. He uses a narrator to introduce each act except the last (but twice within that one), and a kaleidoscopic variety of styles of music to accompany each scene, many of which melt into one another.

So this piece demands a lot from a director, and Alden, with designer Charles Edwards, has given Opera North a vivid, in-yer-face production with a message. Perhaps almost too much of a message. Displaying "Give us what you have too much of" in huge letters over the heads of the chorus as they represent the refugees certainly applies the moral of the story, but it should have sunk in, for anyone with ears to hear, anyway. The company’s Manchester Evening News Theatre Award-winning production of Martinu’s Julietta, staged over 20 years ago with Paul Nilon in the leading role, made us think, rather than battering us with its lessons.

It remains to say that the cast members of The Greek Passion are all excellent, and not surprisingly, as they include many of the most experienced male singers Opera North works with – Stephen Gadd, Jonathan Best, Steven Page (as the Captain, a character who is the narrator but also morphs into such forms as the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas, the better to relate to us today), Paul Nilon, Jeffery Lloyd-Roberts, John Savournin. Young tenor Nicky Spence is also outstanding as Manolios, as is Magdalena Molendowska as the Magdalen character, Katerina: two magnificent voices used with great artistry.

Garry Walker, now music-director-designate of the company, conducts with a sure hand and there are some ravishingly beautiful sounds from the orchestra along the way.

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