The Greek Passion (Opera North), Theatre Royal, Nottingham, 4****: by William Ruff



The Greek Passion (Opera North)


November 9 2019


Theatre Royal, Nottingham




Review: William Ruff



ON’s Greek Passion: disturbing, puzzling, full of musical and dramatic energy


Opera North’s production of Martinu’s The Greek Passion is not for people who want a comfortable night at the theatre, who want to sit back, switch off their brains and let familiar music and escapist storylines wash over them.  The Greek Passion is challenging on so many levels and poses serious questions about its meaning, morality and music – amongst many other things.

Even the few who thought they knew this opera beforehand will be surprised at how different Opera North’s version is.  They have gone back to Martinu’s original ideas, only 30% of which ended up in the final version.  So opera buffs in search of novelty will be in for a treat.

The basic story is the same, however.  It’s set in Lykovrissi, a Greek village, and opens on Easter morning when the priest, Grigoris, gives out parts for the following year’s Passion play.  As the opera unfolds we see how the roles (especially Manolios’ role as Christ and Katerina’s as Mary Magdalen) change the people who have been given them.  Into this traditional, stable community, dominated by an authoritarian church, comes a large group of refugees whose homes have been burned by occupying forces.

How do the villagers respond – with compassion or hostility? Suffice it to say that the opera ends tragically and it raises hard questions about responses to displaced peoples through the ages. The refugees’ plea: ‘Give us what you have too much of’ is displayed on giant letters above the stage and make comparisons with current events inescapable (Opera North actually worked with refugees in Leeds to increase their empathy…).

The design is very striking.  When the curtain rises, the set is dominated by raked stadium seating and a long table, starkly lit by neon tubes against heavy, dark material.  The only colour in the production belongs to the Passion play costumes.  The all-important Chorus is dressed in black and (significantly) they look the same whether they are playing villagers or refugees, emphasising the point that we are all human beings, whether we are haves or have-nots.  As refugees the Chorus carries white, faceless effigies but it’s what the two communities have in common that is such a powerful element in this production, especially their passionate desperation.  In both literal and symbolic ways this is a black-and-white, depersonalised world where it’s groups rather than individuals that count.

Martinu’s choral writing is vibrant and wide-ranging.  Opera North’s Chorus act and sing their hearts out as they explore the complex relationship of the two communities.  And the orchestra, under their conductor Garry Walker, rises to the challenge too.  Martinu’s writing veers from harsh dissonance to quiet radiance, from folk music to wedding bands to bell-like solemnity.  Opera North’s players are equal to it all.

The whole vast company is impressive, especially Nicky Spence as the Christ-inspired Manolios and Magdalena Molendowska as the complex Katerina.  The village priest Grigoris and the refugee priest Fotis also play pivotal roles.  However, this really is an opera about communities and the strength of the overall ensemble is this production’s most notable feature.

That said, I did wonder whether there were just too many ideas in the vision of Director Christopher Alden and Set Designer Charles Edwards.  If an audience has to spend too much time decoding effigies, shirtless priests etc, it can be a tad distracting.  But for audiences unafraid of a challenge ON’s resurrection of such an operatic rarity – as well as their harnessing of so much creative energy – presents a world which seems both strange and frighteningly familiar at the same time.

Priest Grigoris                         Stephen Gadd
Archon                                    Jonathan Best
Captain                                    Paul Gibson
Schoolmaster                         Ivan Sharpe
Father Ladas                           Jeremy Peaker

Kostandis                                Richard Mosley-Evans
Dimitri                                     Christopher Nairne
Manolios                                 Nicky Spence
Yannakos                                 Paul Nilon
Michelis                                   Rhodri Prys Jones
Panait                                      Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Andonis                                   Campbell Russell
Nikolio                                     Alex Banfield
Lenio                                       Lorna James
Katerina                                  Magdalena Molendowska
Old woman                             Hazel Croft

Priest Fotis                              John Savournin
Despinio                                  Amy Freston
Old man                                  Dean Robinson

Villagers and refugees            Chorus of Opera North

Orchestra of Opera North


Conductor                               Garry Walker

Director                                   Christopher Alden

Set and

Lighting Designer                  Charles Edwards
Costume Designer                  Doey Lüthi


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