Saturday, 28 September 2019

A terrific company achievement: Martinu's The Greek Passion at Opera North

Martinu: The Greek Passion - Magdalena Molendowska, Richard Mosley-Evans, Paul Nilon, Rhodri Prys Jones, Nicky Spence, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts- Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Martinu: The Greek Passion - Magdalena Molendowska, Richard Mosley-Evans, Paul Nilon, Rhodri Prys Jones, Nicky Spence, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts- Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Martinu The Greek Passion; Nicky Spence, Magdalena Molendowska, Stephen Gadd, John Savournin, Paul Nilon, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, dir: Christopher Alden, cond: Garry Walker; Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 September 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Martinu's powerful, epic opera as concentrated modern drama

Martinu: The Greek Passion - Nicky Spence - Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Martinu: The Greek Passion - Nicky Spence
Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Considering it was written for Covent Garden in 1957, Bohuslav Martinu's The Greek Passion has rather a strange history in the UK. Rejected by Covent Garden at the last minute (probably through a combination of the work's experimental form and nervousness about issues surrounding the problems in Cyprus), Martinu offered the opera to Zurich. But the changes required by that company resulted in effectively a new, more traditional opera. The Greek Passion had to wait until 1981 for its first UK performance, when Sir Charles Mackerras conducted the revised, Zurich version at Welsh National Opera. It wasn't until 2000 that the opera came home so to speak, when Covent Garden performed David Pountney's 1999 Bregenz Festival production of Martinu's original London version of the opera, painstakingly reconstructed by Ales Brezina.

Thus Opera North's new production of the London version of Martinu's The Greek Passion was only the third time either version of the work had been professionally performed in the UK and the second outing for the London version.


Opera North's production of Bohuslav Martinu's The Greek Passion debuted at Leeds Grand Theatre on 14 September 2019 and we caught the third performance on 27 September 2019. Christopher Alden directed with designs by Charles Edwards and costumes by Doey Lüthi, conducted by Garry Walker, Opera North's music director designate. Nicky Spence was Manolios with Magdalena Molendowska as Katerina, Stephen Gadd as Priest Grigoris, John Savournin as Priest Fotis, Paul Nilon as Yannakos and Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts as Panait.

The opera has a total of 19 roles, of which eight were played by members of the admirable Opera North chorus. In fact, the chorus is a big feature of the work, populating the village and playing refugees and here the Opera North chorus delivered thrillingly, with some vivid (and at times thrilling) singing.

Martinu: The Greek Passion - John Savournin & chorus - Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Martinu: The Greek Passion - John Savournin & chorus - Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
This version of the opera is striking because instead of conventional scenes and arias (something Martinu introduced in the Zurich version), the libretto is full of short scenes intercutting in a way which is highly fluid, and Martinu's flexible sung recitative is mixed in with moments of spoken text. David Pountney's 1999/2000 production solved the work's challenges by presenting the life of the whole village in a huge set which filled the width and height of Covent Garden's newly rebuilt stage, with the scenes of the opera moving around filmically.



Christopher Alden's new production, designed for Opera North to tour, takes a different view. Charles Edwards' set is basic, at the opening we simply saw tiered seating and this structure (which could be moved around) was a key element in all the scenes, all set against a black backdrop. The result was to focus the attention on the characters. The chorus, though all clad in black and initially simply seated on the tiered seating, successfully created individual characters, and the action of the opera played out in a series of short intersecting scenes, sometimes abstract but sometimes with telling details; Katerina pulling a trolley of milk for the refugees, Manolios' mattress, old and dirty, on which Lenio (his fiancee) and Nikolio (here new man) consummate their love so intensely that they continue as the mattress is hauled off for the scene change.

Martinu: The Greek Passion - Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, Magdalena Molendowska - Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Martinu: The Greek Passion
Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, Magdalena Molendowska
Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
The plot involves people from the village being chosen to play characters in the Passion Play, and the incarnating their roles, so that Manolios (who is to play Christ) takes the side of refugees who are rejected by the village. As the characters in the Passion Play are chosen, each was given a coloured robe which they hung up leaven them suspended above the action. Only in the crucial Act Four scene leading up to Manolios death at the hands of the villagers did the six wear their robes and re-enact the Passion.

A big factor in the production was the depiction of the refugees. Then they first appeared, chorus members were carrying white mannequins and these realistic models (made specially for the production) stood in for the refugees, often remaining on stage as silent witnesses of the villagers' betrayal.

Watching and observing was another key factor, with characters silently witnessing other events - village life was never private. The refugees' priest, Fotis, is substantially absent from the score in Acts Three and Four but here John Savournin (who played the role) was a silent, anguished spectator on the action.

This was a strong company achievement and whilst I have no wish to minimise the powerful individual performance, it was the superb sense of ensemble which carried the piece forward and gave it such strength. In this version of the opera Martinu shifts the focus, Stephen Gadd's Grigoris in Act One, John Savournin's Fotis in Act Two and then only finally Nicky Spence's Manolios came to the fore in the final acts.

Nicky Spence gave a towering performance as Manolios, the slightly strange withdrawn young man(it is probably significant that Manolios is a shepherd, spending large amounts of time alone on the mountain) who is chosen to play Christ. For the first two acts Manolios gradually withdrew into the role and then in the final two acts he channelled it, preaching in support of the refugees and disrupting the village status quo. Spence's performance really anchored the opera, and he drew a convincing picture of Manolios combination of inwardness and determination. His final scenes were movingly powerful indeed. Spence has impressed recently in Janacek roles, so it was great to hear him bringing the same qualities of emotional strength, character and incisive flexibility to another Czech role. And superb diction!

Martinu: The Greek Passion - John Savournin, Steven Page - Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Martinu: The Greek PassionJohn Savournin, Steven Page
Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Stephen Gadd was Grigoris very much anchored the opening scenes of the opera, creating a stunning picture of the stiff-necked, self-centred priest who brooked no argument and had no compunction at excommunicating Manolios for preaching Christ's message when it went against Grigoris' wishes. A thrilling performance. John Savournin as Fotis was almost mystical in his intensity and with a powerful feeling of working to his own time. A moving portrayal which developed as Savournin's Fotis witnesses the villagers' behaviour including the killing of Manolios. Alden made all this rather re-focus Fotis' final scene (after Manolios death) which can seem a moment of hope but here became a cry of despair.

The other characters in the Passion were Paul Nilon as Yannakos (playing Peter), Rhodri Prys Jones as Michelis (playing John), Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Panait (playing Judas), Richard Mosley-Evans as Kostandis (playing James) and Magdalena Moldendowska as Katerina (playing Mary Magdalene). Nilon brought vivid sense of Yannakos discovering his inner worth as Yannakos with some strongly etched scenes. Molendowska as Katerina (the village trollop thus type cast as Mary Magdalena) made her very human and someone we with whom we could all identify. A very touching performance, powerfully delivered, Molendowska was announced as suffering from a cold but this did not seem to affect her performance. The only non-native English speaker in the cast (I think), her diction was both expressive and comprehensible. Lloyd-Roberts made Panait striking, rather vulnerable man, intensely jealous of Katerina and pained that he has to be Judas. Mosley-Evans and Prys Jones each made a striking character in their short scenes.

Gadd's Grigoris was wonderfully aided and abetted by a trio of striking village elders, Jonathan Best as Archon ('the richest man in the village'), Ivan Sharpe as the schoolmaster and Jeremy Peaker as Father Ladas. Steven Page played the Captain, a fallible war-hero who becomes the narrator of the piece, framing the action. A word should be said for Lorna James as Lenio, the young woman whom Manolios dumps, and James made her a terrifically believable character. All the other roles were very strongly taken, each giving a little vignette.

Martinu's orchestra is large and colourful (including an accordion and a harpsichord) and the Opera North orchestra played with real affection under its music director designate with all the orchestral interludes adding to the layered complexity of the score.

Martinu: The Greek Passion - Jonathan Best, Ivan Sharpe, Stephen Gadd, Jeremy Peaker - Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Martinu: The Greek Passion - Jonathan Best, Ivan Sharpe, Stephen Gadd, Jeremy Peaker
Opera North (Photo Tristram Kenton)
It was fascinating to see how diverse and audience (in terms of age and demographic) that the performance had attracted, few can have been familiar with the opera yet all seemed determined to explore it and by the end many were rightly blown away. Around us in the stalls there were some very strong reactions at the end.

The Greek Passion is as alarming relevant today as it was when it was created over 60 years ago. And besides being a terrific company achievement, this production showed that the piece works as a piece of concentrated modern drama.

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