Review – Martinů The Greek Passion

Nicky Spence as Manolios with the Chorus of Opera North, The Greek Passion © Tristram Kenton

Opera North  

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. 

The Chorus of Opera North © Tristram Kenton

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:

Review – Britten The Turn of the Screw

Opera North

The Lowry, Salford

Wednesday 11 March 2020

A superbly creepy staging of Britten’s masterpiece


Sarah Tynan as the Governess and Nicholas Watts as Peter Quint ©Tristram Kenton

The small scale of the forces involved in Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera was evident when the whole cast came on stage at the end to take their well-deserved applause; rather than the usual choruses of flower girls, matadors and several principal roles there were just six people. The orchestra was equally small, just 13 players. This creates a peculiar intimacy, ideally suited to this intensely claustrophobic and atmospheric ghost story. Every singer and musician was exposed, and they were all equal to the task.

The set played a vital part in creating the unsettling atmosphere, dominated by a huge bed which cleverly doubled as a puppet-theatre, and a stage coach, perspectives and images distorted and exaggerated like terrifying visions from a child’s nightmare of a fairy tale. Even inanimate objects took on a sinister aspect – the rocking horse in Act I became animated on its own; the gramophone in Act II crouched malevolently.

Image ©Tristram Kenton 02/20

The nightmarish quality of the sets was enhanced by some surreal touches. The opening image of the Governess, seen from behind as she travelled in a stage coach to the country house could have come from a painting by René Magritte. The wallpaper on the vast wall at the back of the set could have been by William Morris but on a surreally large scale. When the wall disappeared to reveal the garden behind, the flowers unnaturally bright colourful as if from a painting by Henri Rousseau. The windows through which Miles stared, looking for Peter Quint, were like the windows of a pagan cathedral. Sometimes the characters cast huge shadows behind them, and even the floor sloped unsettlingly, like images from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

This production worked like the best horror films where the viewer’s imagination weds powerful visual imagery to unsettling music to create a sense of the uncanny. The two apparitions, the dead Miss Jessel and Peter Quint appeared suddenly at the window or at the door; combined with evocative lighting, a little dry ice and sinister music the two human figures take on a menacingly eerie aspect. An analogy from the world of cinema is the 2014 psychological drama and supernatural horror film It Follows, in which the disturbing score by Disasterpeace (Richard Vreeland) inspired by John Cage, John Carpenter and Penderecki, and Goblin (who wrote the score for the original 1977 version of Suspiria) makes the ordinary human form seem extraordinary and terrifying.

It Follows Original Sound Track by Disasterpeace

All this would have been for nothing if the cast hadn’t made the impressive set their own. Sarah Tynan was on stage for virtually the whole opera, and we saw much of the action through her increasingly anxious eyes. Heather Shipp was a suitably caring Mrs Grose. The children were superb – Tim Gasiorek’s movement as young Miles was outstanding, particularly when he danced to the gramophone in the second Act. Jennifer Clark as Flora had a memorable moment as she climbed on top of the four poster bed and dropped puppets down, an eerie puppeteer. They both moved convincingly like sometimes naughty children; another highlight was when a ghostly hand pulled back the curtain at the back of the bed, and it was revealed as a child’s hand, a delicious jump scare. All the singers were in fine voice, despite very occasionally being slightly overwhelmed by the orchestra. Nicholas Watts as Quint relished his melismatic melodic lines addressed to Miles, and Eleanor Dennis as Miss Jessel was suitably ghostly. Their line (from The Second Coming by WB Yeats) ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’ lives long in the memory. And conductor Leo McFall brought out the taut instrumental lines from his skilled ensemble with great clarity.

And so out into the real world, where appropriately, it was a dark and stormy night but without the raw emotional storms we had just witnessed inside the Lowry.

Review – Poulenc Dialogues des Carmélites

RNCM soloists, chorus and orchestra

RNCM Manchester

Saturday 14 December 2019

A stunning staging of Poulenc’s emotional opera


This was the final performance of the RNCM’s staging of Poulenc’s opera, Dialogues des Carmélites, set in a Carmelite monastery during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. It’s a deeply religious work appearing towards the end of his life in the 1950s, a couple of decades after the sparkling frivolity of his early works was wrenched in a new direction by the violent death of a close friend and a visit to the sanctuary at Rocamadour,

A few days earlier I’d just heard of the tragic death of my colleague … As I meditated on the fragility of our human frame, I was drawn once more to the life of the spirit. Rocamadour had the effect of restoring me to the faith of my childhood.

The staging was superb, beautifully designed and evocatively lit. The main set was split into two levels, both painted a pristine white, the lower level sometimes looking like a Dutch painting drained of all colour by the stark white light. This was desecrated in Act III by the brief incursion of the Revolutionaries who had ripped the religious symbols off the walls, sprayed the lower walls with the slogan “god is dead”, the staircase with the word ‘liars’, and the upper wall with an anarchist symbol.

RNCM’s Dialogues des Carmélites (c) Robert Workman

And in Act III the stark, timeless simplicity of the nuns’ costumes contrasted shockingly with the brutal black leather of the riot police with their plastic shields and the garish colour of the revolutionaries’ costumes. The nuns remained at the still centre of the violently turning world.

But impressive and dramatic as the staging is, the opera is about the inner drama of the characters and the terrible beauty of the decision to nuns sacrifice themselves to the guillotine at the end of the opera. This was effectively staged, each nun throwing her head back and dropping her cloak to the floor to represent her execution, the human soul then leaving the body as each nun slowly left the stage. Poulenc’s music does most of the emotional work, the chorus of nuns becoming smaller and smaller as each nun disappears with the swift metallic sound of the guillotine. There were some tears in the audience.

The Soprano Yuliya Shkvarko was fresh-voiced and impressive as Blanche, youthful and convincing as Blanche de la Force courageously facing her moral dilemmas. A moment of horror was well-expressed when she dropped a figurine of the Christ Child from the upper part of the set and it smashed. Her young companion, the soprano Pasquale Orchard was equally good as Sister Constance. The older women impressed too – Molly Barker was moving as Madame de Croissy, sitting in anguished pain writhing in her wheelchair before she fell to the floor in a bathetic death that was too small for her, like an ill-fitting coat as the libretto says. Georgia Ellis as Mother Marie and Mariya Sevdanska as Madam Lidoine led the Sisters impressively, contrasting well with Blanche and Constance.

There were a couple of minor problems – the surtitles failed to fire up during the first Act, making it a little hard to follow, and there were some early tuning issues in the orchestra which gradually blossomed under Andrew Greenwood.

RNCM’s Dialogues des Carmélites (c) Robert Workman

But the final word belonged to Blanche, joining Constance at the very last minute to be guillotined, with a beatific smile.

Kent Nagano’s classic recording of the final scene of the opera