Composer and Librettist: Bohuslav Martinu
Director: Christopher Alden
Designer: Charles Edwards
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
The Greek Passion is not a conventional opera. For one thing, the narration and a few key speeches are spoken not sung. This is, however, typical for a production where director Christopher Alden sets out to leave the audience feeling uncomfortable at having their preconceptions challenged.
The residents of a Greek village plan to celebrate Easter by staging a Passion Play – the re-enactment of Christ’s last hours on earth. The village elders select those who are to act in the play but are worried to find that they are taking their assigned roles a bit too literally. This is especially the case for the shepherd Manolios (Nicky Spence) who has the role of Christ. However, while the villagers are happy to celebrate a Christian festival they are less willing to give practical demonstrations of charity. When a group of desperate refugees arrive asking for shelter, the elders refuse alleging they have cholera. Manolios, however, sets out to help the refugees and, in so doing, causes deep divisions within the village.
Nicky Spence has the starring role in the opera and does a fine job but The Greek Passion is a triumph for the Opera North Chorus and designer Charles Edwards. From the opening, the opera is confrontational and disconcerting. Without an overture and in silence the curtain rises on a stage dominated by a series of rising benches as you would see in a sports arena and a table set for the elders to sit in judgement. A particularly ominous feature is a snow-white dummy in the shape of a life-size human body (reminiscent of the body casts created by artist Anthony Gormley) lying slumped on the bench.
A series of the replica humans represent the refugees, as if to demonstrate the extent to which the villagers regard them as an anonymous mass rather than individuals. When the Chorus play the villagers, they are dressed in plain black clothes. To represent the refugees, however, they each hold a replica figure and, when a character dies, the dummy ascends to the ceiling hanging like a guilty memory over the stage.
It is hard to remember a production when the talents of the Opera North Chorus have been used to better effect. Rather than being passive or humble, the refugees are demanding, on the verge of violence. The sheer rage the Chorus projects as the mass ranks of refugees howling for help is daunting to say the least. The Chorus ensure a level of intensity and passion that makes the opera so memorable.
It is hard to avoid the feeling that the accusations of complacency and selfishness made about the villagers apply also to the audience .The Chorus behave in an intimidating manner with fingers pointing angrily at the audience. A key phrase in the opera is the chilling demand ‘’Give us what you have too much of’’. Just to make sure the point is not missed director Christopher Alden has the words physically hang over the stage at key moments.
Bohuslav Martinu’s score reflects the tempestuous nature of the subject matter and has features one would not normally expect in opera. The opening music with toiling bells and massed choral voices is familiar from church but some of the vocal phrases have a pagan tone and the presence of fiddles and accordions brings a hint of folk music.
Director Christopher Alden may want to leave the audience disconcerted as to the treatment of refugees but does not set a grim or depressing tone. The Greek Passion is stuffed full of surprising visual and verbal jokes. The Easter Bunny and Santa both make an appearance and, during one of the most powerful moments, as Christ’s crucifixion is re-created, ushers are clearly visible selling snacks and beer. The village elders are desperate to blacken the character of the saintly Manolios but can only accuse him of being a Vegan.
The Greek Passion is a clear and compelling production, setting out a powerful and highly topical subject that will leave audiences uncomfortable but highly entertained.
Reviewed on 16 November 2019 | Image: Tristram Kenton