Review: The Greek Passion, Opera North at Leeds Grand Theatre, Saturday 14th September 2019

BOHUSLAV Martinu’s final opera begins on a traditional Easter Sunday in the Greek village of Lycovrissi where the elders have gathered to allot principal roles in the following year’s Passion Play. Manolios, a young shepherd, is cast as Jesus Christ and soon realises that he can no longer contemplate marriage if he is henceforth to devote his life to God. Manolios and the chosen apostles read the Bible together to better understand their roles in the Passion Play. The group’s capacity for compassion in the face of a hostile community will soon be tested to breaking point by the arrival of refugees.

Martinu himself had known life as a displaced person and his impassioned plea for tolerance is as potent today as at the time of composition from 1954-57. “Give us what you have too much of” is writ large above Charles Edwards’ stark black box set. A revolving steeply raked stadium seating unit represents the refugees’ arid mountain settlement.

The composer originally envisaged separate choruses of villagers and refugees. In Christopher Alden’s new production for Opera North, the 46 strong chorus is a single body of vividly characterised villagers. The refugees are represented by life-size white plaster effigies; powerful images that strikingly underline their universal “non-person” status.

Alden’s sweeping choreographed movements of the chorus fuel the urgent pace of his production. An outstanding set of principals is led by Scottish tenor Nicky Spence as the Messiah-like Manolios. Spence’s obvious sincerity is embedded in his sensitive acting, gleaming tone and crystal clear projection of the English text. The hounding of Manolios by the villagers, and his brutal demise are all the more shocking.

Martinu’s instrumentation deploys a large orchestra which eloquently expresses the characters and groups as much as his libretto does. Echoes of ancient chant and infectious Moravian folk tunes from a lively onstage accordion-based ensemble depict community celebrations, delightful moments of respite from the prevailing serious mood. Garry Walker, Opera North’s music director-designate, draws luminous detail from his orchestra and controlled visceral power from the chorus. There are only three more opportunities to experience this searing production at Leeds Grand Theatre: 21st Sept, 27th Sept and 19th October.

Geoffrey Mogridge