GREEK PASSION – BOHUSLAV MARTIN
ROYAL OPERA HOUSE – COVENT GARDEN
I went to the belated Royal Opera House premiere of the Greek Passion on 25 April – 41 years after the composer’s death in Swiss exile. It was the Czech composer Bohuslav Martin’s last great work with libretto in English by the composer. Based on the novel Christ Recrucified by the Cretan poet Kikos Kazantzkis (better known as the author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ). It was sung in English and conducted by Czech music specialist Sir Charles Mackerras and directed by David Pountney.
One of the reasons the ROH was loath to stage it earlier was because of what it would cost to stage the many and fast-moving changes of scene needed: a mountain, a village square, inside a house etc. But Pountney worked closely with set designer Stefanos Lazaridis and they solved the problem by creating a kind of vertical tree with branches which could be said to represent the stages of a pilgrimage or the Stations of the Cross.
The action begins with the narrator on one side of the stage and Manolios (the Greek ‘Christ’ ) on the other side. The story is about a Greek community in Anatolia in the years before World War One. Every year the villagers enact a Passion play and the story begins with the roles being cast. Shortly afterwards, a group of hungry Greek refugees come to the village having been driven from their homes. And conflict arises between them and the villagers who see them as a threat and – frightened they will disrupt their cosy lifestyle – community and church leaders unite in branding them ‘bogus’, accuse them (falsely) of spreading disease and drive them out of town.
Parallel to the Greek religious story is a love story of Manolios with Katerina (Mary Magdalene) but the ‘establishment’ stoned him to death because of his support of the refugees. It is a modern parable of a modern-day Christ killed for supporting the have-nots in their eternal battle against the haves-as tragically topical how as then.
I was very startled at the end of the performance to see what looked like ghosts coming towards me. They were, in fact, the hungry refugees with shabby clothes and gaunt faces which made them look like ghosts – I thought I was having a hallucination and it took me a few seconds to realise they were the refugees – moving on as they have throughout history: a poignant moment.
All the cast sang beautifully and received much applause at the end. Joma Silvasti played the role or Manolios with Marie McLaughlin as Katerina. The High Priest Grigoris was sung by the Finnish bass-baritone Esa Ruuttunen.
The Greek Passion was spectacular to look at and beautifully sung but I personally found Grigoris, the High Priest, very disturbing with his actions of ex communicating and putting Manolios to death.