The Royal Opera – The Greek Passion

The Greek Passion – Opera in four acts to an English libretto by the composer based on the novel “Christ Recrucified” by Nikos Kazantzakis

Grigoris – Peter Sidhom
Aga – Richard Angas
Schoolmaster – Francis Egerton
Archon – Jeremy White
Ladas – Jonathan Fisher
Kostandis – Adrian Clarke
Yannakos – Timothy Robinson
Michelis – Andrew Kennedy
Panait – Douglas Nasrawi
Manolios – Christopher Ventris
Lenio – Juanita Lascarro
Fotis – Willard W. White
Old Man – Robert Lloyd
Katerina – Marie McLaughlin
Despinio – Hilary Taylor
Nikolio – James Edwards
Old Woman – Elizabeth Sikora
Dimitri – Thomas Barnard
Andonis – Alasdair Elliott

The Royal Opera Chorus
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Charles Mackerras

David Pountney – director
Stefanos Lazaridis – sets
Marie-Jeanne Lecca – costumes
Davy Cunningham – lighting
Elaine Tyler-Hall – choreography

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 15 September, 2004
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

This is the Royal Opera House’s first revival of its Laurence Olivier Award-winning production of Bohuslav Martinů’s The Greek Passion, given in its original version, the one that the management of the Royal Opera eventually decided not to stage for what would have been the world premiere in 1958. The premiere took place in Zurich in 1961 (two years after Martinů’s death) using Martinů’s revision, the one he subsequently made to attract other companies.

The Royal Opera House’s production was first staged in 2000 when its spectacular stage designs, cogent direction, and ensemble playing by cast and orchestra won it many plaudits, but not huge audiences. Perhaps anticipating limited appeal this time round the Royal Opera House has cut the prices of all seats: the tempting maximum is £50. Hopefully this will encourage a few adventurous novices and give regulars a chance to see a production from a better vantage-point than normal.

Those who go are in for an excellent evening, not least because Sir Charles Mackerras is at the helm again; he can have few equals in Czech music today and for whom the Royal Opera Orchestra plays wonderfully. There are notable contributions from the middle and lower woodwind instruments, and excellent strings. One should also not overlook the accordion player – one of the instruments used by Martinů to provide much colour and originality to his score. Nor indeed the percussion, particularly the bells, which play such an important part in this piece, and which set the atmosphere from the very start.

Mackerras’s pacing is exemplary and the meditative moments are very moving. It says much that Mackerras manages to make one aware of so many of the felicities of the orchestration when there is so much to visibly attract the attention. The stage is dominated, almost right up to the full height of the proscenium arch, by a huge wooden, multi-tiered structure, with the levels connected by various sloping walkways. This edifice is mounted on a stage-revolve, which only becomes apparent toward the end of Act Two. The structure allows for a multitude of settings (the rooms of different characters for example) to be observed simultaneously, or come alive as a whole mountainside, or even resemble a cathedral. Davy Cunningham’s lighting is very atmospheric with many shafts of light passing through small apertures or colour variations to represent these changes of setting over the seasons.

Director David Pountney has managed to get both principals and chorus to work as a true ensemble, and the feeling of two separate communities clashing over ideals is tellingly portrayed – the stage settings often helping to create the feeling of anxiety and claustrophobia. However, the visionary and spiritual journey of the characters chosen to enact the Passion, who start to behave as their Passion characters, is also movingly depicted.

The status quo within the village is maintained by the priest Grigoris, incisively sung by Peter Sidhom, the schoolmaster and the wealthy Archon and miserly Ladas – all given in excellent cameos. Willard W. White, whose imposing presence dominated every scene he was in, sings Fotis, the leader of the refugee community, in inky and implacable tone. The velvety bass of Robert Lloyd was immediately identifiable in the small but important role of the old refugee.

It is the behaviour of the villagers given roles in the Passion Play that drive the action forward. Christopher Ventris sings the shepherd Manolios, who gradually starts to identify himself as a Christ-figure, renounces his fiancée, and leads the others to offer assistance to the refugees and eventually to challenge his own village’s hierarchy. Ventris has a very beautiful, rounded and focussed tenor, and is a compelling stage performer – his visionary moments were convincing and you could understand how the other villagers could be affected by his charisma! His moments of stillness prior to his stoning were full of pathos – a terrific performance.

Katerina is subsumed by the role of Mary Magdalene; Marie McLaughlin sings with great intensity and was particularly moving in her hillside encounter with Timothy Robinson’s Yannakos, where her character reveals her happiness and feelings of liberation on selling her belongings and giving all her valuables to help the refugee children. This was sung with great beauty and tenderness. Robinson’s anxious Yannakos is another fine portrayal, his lighter, plangent tenor contrasting well with Ventris’s timbre. As the Judas figure, Panait, Douglas Naswari made his mark although his vocal tone was not very ingratiating – but then neither is the character. The augmented chorus sang superbly.

What was particularly impressive was the clarity of the words. Martinů’s original libretto was in English (the revision is in German); there are no surtitles – and yet almost every word was audible, even at those rare moments when Martinů’s orchestration is dense: this really enhances audience involvement with the performance. (ENO could learn a few lessons about putting the English language across from the Royal Opera’s example.)

The Greek Passion is one of the great productions in the Royal Opera’s current repertory – I hope it gets the audience it deserves.

  • Remaining performances: 21, 23 & 25 September and 1 October at 7.30 p.m. and 19 September at 3 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Tickets £4-50
  • Royal Opera
  • The performance on 25 September is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3

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