Sunday, 10 November 2019

OPERA REVIEW: The Greek Passion - The Theatre Royal, Nottingham.


Martinu’s Greek Passion was composed to an English libretto in 1957 and offered to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - which, in one of its periodic fits of chauvinism, rejected it. Zurich was the eventual location of the premiere, which occurred in 1961: the composer, though, did not live to see his work performed, having died in 1959. A bitter blow, as the opera is undoubtedly a masterpiece and - in the febrile atmosphere of 2019 - almost unbearably relevant.

In brief, the story relates the preparations of the small Greek village of Lycrovissi to celebrate Easter with a Passion play and roles are distributed according to ‘fit’: the ‘loose’ widow Katrina is cast to type as as the prostitute Mary Magdalen, her lover Panait protestingly assumes the role of Judas but the part of Christ is given to the shepherd Manolios. The preparations are interrupted by the arrival of a group of refugees whose village has been burnt down by the Turks, providing the opera with its pivotal event, the one that forces the characters to take sides. The village priest Grigoris, using the populist language of present-day demagogues, stirs up hatred against the newcomers, exploiting the villagers’ fear of a cholera epidemic. But Manolios, inspired by his role in the Passion, takes their side, thus triggering the opera’s tragic denouement.

Martinu writes in a tonal, approachable style. Those seeking hummable melodies will not find what they’re looking for, but his development of themes and orchestration is entirely appropriate to the work’s intensely serious character. The spoken parts of the libretto appeared to have been updated - to include topical references to such things as veganism -but that wasn’t necessary: the opera speaks clearly to a thinking, responsive audience.

Elsewhere in this current Opera North season, voices weren’t always as strong as they might have been, but the Greek Passion’s cast had no trouble being heard above the loudest orchestral tuttis. Central to the evening’s success is Nicky Spence’s Manolios, a performance of outstanding power and moral authority. Spence’s trenchant tenor cut right through the orchestra and he is never less than dramatically compelling. As his (not quite) love interest, Magdalena Molendowska matched him in intensity and there were equally fine performances from Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as the jealous Panait and Stephen Gadd as the pharisaical priest Grigoris.

Christopher Alden’s production evinced something that is increasingly rare in opera production these days: evidence that the director had thought things through. Set, like most of this season, in a locational limbo, the action and stage groupings were swift and imaginative. Although originally written for a double chorus (villagers and refugees), 2010s budget constraints meant that the refugees were represented by a mass of seated window display dummies that the chorister carried in and positioned. This was clear enough to those who attended the pre-performance talk (or read the programme) but would it have been so obvious to those who hadn’t?

Opera North’s new music director designate, Garry Walker conducted with great flair and incisiveness.

Reviewer - Richard Ely
on - 9/11/19

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