The Lowry, Salford Saturday 16 November 2019
A visually striking production of a topical drama
‘The poor are always with us’. So are refugees, and Martinů’s message in his opera the Greek Passion is both topical and timeless. The refugees who are at the centre of the story make a simple request of the villagers from whom they seek help,
Give us what you have too much of
One of the most striking moments of the Greek Passion comes at the start of Act IV when the wedding feast of the villagers Lenio and Nikolio is interrupted by the loud cry of the refugees’ priest Fotis looking down from high above. The wedding celebrations had seemed out of place in such an austere production. The rustic wedding feast could have been part of a comic opera but we are brutally reminded of the poverty of the refugees who have been forced to live up on the mountain above the village.
The Passion of the title is the Passion Play for which parts are handed out to the villagers in the Greek village of Lycovrissi. Martinů again subverts our expectations. There is no ‘play within a play’ in which the villagers enact the story of The Passion of Christ; instead they slowly take on the characteristics of the Biblical characters they have been chosen to play.
The most striking transformation is that of Manolios who becomes increasingly inward-looking as he transforms himself into the character of Jesus, eventually becoming a public preacher and meeting his death at the hands of a baying crowd just as Jesus did. And there’s a powerful visual contrast between those who have been chosen to take the parts of Jesus, his disciples and Mary Magdalene, and the rest of the cast. They wear richly coloured garments that drop down from heaven, and are seen in stylised tableaux that could come from an Italian Renaissance painting.
Martinů damns Organised Religion in the form of the Grigoris, preist of the villagers. He blames cholera for the death of one of the refugees, rather than starvation so that his flock have a reason to reject the refugees. He and other village elders condemn Manolios for preaching the truth and excommunicate him. The visual contrast between him and the refugees’ priest Fotis is striking. Grigoris wears the traditional costume, echoing Sean Ryder’s lyric in his song The Reverend Black Grape, ‘There’s nothing more sinister/As ministers in dresses’.
Fotis is stripped to the waist for most of the opera; shaven-headed and wearing round glasses he looks like an ascetic, cerebral Buddhist monk.
The final, and most obvious visual contrast is between the two Choruses. In the original opera, Martinů writes for two separate Choruses – Villagers, and Refugees. In this production the same Opera North Chorus becomes both, but signifies that it’s the chorus of refugees by each singer holding a life-size white effigy of a human being. The refugees become vulnerable, ghostly, fragile figures.
All of this would be for nothing if it the production were simply an abstract essay in morality. It isn’t. It’s populated by passionate human characters, superbly acted and sung to create a compelling and moving drama.
MANOLIOS …….. Nicky Spence (tenor)
KATERINA ……Magdalena Molendowska (soprano)
YANNAKOS ……Paul Nilon (tenor)
PANAIT……Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (tenor)
PRIEST GRIGORIS……Stephen Gadd (baritone)
PRIEST FOTIS……John Savournin (bass-baritone)
KOSTANDIS……Richard Mosley-Evans (baritone)
LENIO……Lorna James (soprano)
CAPTAIN……Steven Page (baritone)
ARCHON……Jonathan Best (bass-baritone)
MICHELIS……Alexander Robin Baker (tenor)
NIKOLIO…….Alex Banfield (tenor)
SCHOOLMASTER……Ivan Sharpe (tenor)
FATHER LADAS……Jeremy Peaker (baritone)
Opera North Chorus
Opera North Orchestra conducted by Garry Walker
Available to listen for the next 22 days on BBC Radio 3’s Opera on 3: