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Christ Recrucified

Royal Opera House
04/25/2000 -  
Bohuslav Martinu, The Greek Passion
Esa Ruuttunen (Grigoris), Richard Angas (Aga), Terry Jenkins (Schoolmaster), Jeremy White (Archon), McCallum (Ladas), Roderick Earle (Kostandis), Timothy Robinson (Yannakos), Peter Auty (Michelis), Robin Legatte (Panait), Jorma Silvasti (Manolios), Jenny Grahn (Lenio), Gwynne Howell (Fotis), Grant Dickson (Old man), Marie McLaughlin (Katerina), Hilary Taylor (Despinio), Peter Wedd (Nikolio), Elizabeth Sikora (Old woman), James Bobby (Dimitri), Alasdair Elliott (Andonis)
Charles Mackerras (conductor), David Pountney (director)

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

There is something surreal about the history of this, first, version of Martinu's Greek Passion. It was rejected by the Board of Covent Garden in 1957 -- one of the people consulted said that it might be interesting to the general public, but not to the 'exclusive, intellectual audience of Covent Garden'. Martinu completely reworked his opera, using a few pages of his original draft and gaving many of the remaining pages to his friends as presents. Tonight's score, first performed at Bregenz last year, was reconstructed by putting scattered pages together with a piano reduction as a check. Fortunately, the disiecta membra fit perfectly, with nothing missing. Sadly, the Royal Opera House was not exactly packed, though whether that is evidence of the exclusive, intellectual quality of its audience remains to be seen.

Other good news: Stefanos Lazaridis' powerful and complex unit set did not have any moving parts to break and rotated happily on its turntable. Other bad news: two years ago, the story of refugees rejected by a complacent community had distressing resonances of Bosnia and Kosovo; today, the priest who refuses to help the starving refugees, arguing that a dying girl has cholera, sounds painfully like some of our own politicians who seem to link refugees automatically with deceit and crime.

Martinu's first version of the Greek Passion in fact emphasizes even more powerfully the bonds of community, working for good in the growing solidarity of the cast of the passion play, and for evil in the village elders closing ranks again a vulnerable 'enemy'. The more fluid scene structure and the impressionistic music reveal an evolving network of ties and frictions between individuals and groups, in contrast to the clear cut action and symmetries of the revised version. The voices in the first version move seamlessly between realistic, poetic and commentating language, and associated speaking and musical styles, and there is also a narrator who moves the perspective still further out. Manolios' Christ-like focal role is downplayed, and he becomes simply one of the evolving community of the 'apostles' and 'Mary Magdalene'. (In this production, he is not stabbed by Panait but stoned by the whole village.) The opera ends not with his death but with a final rupture of sympathy as the villagers sing alleluias to celebrate Christmas in their comfortable traditional way while the refugees, mourning Manolios, move on singing Kyrie eleison.

David Pountney's production followed the bold contrasts of the music and text, constructing scenes as they fall in the music, a sweeping liturgical chorus, a four-way bantering dialogue, a snatch of popular dance music. Lazarides' set had a range of platforms and stairs that allowed characters and groups to interact at all angles. The only fixture was the Stammtisch downstage left where the priest Grigoris, the miser Lada and the boss Archon, plus the schoolmaster and the Aga convene. (In this version, the Aga is an acerbic bystander who turns into a detached narrator. Losing him is probably one of the improvements of the revised version.) A high platform, initially in the centre of the set, recalled Martinu's home bell-tower, and was used by the priest and the apostles to state their Christian beliefs. There was no sense of the hills or pastures mentioned, only of a community where everybody is watching everybody else. The costumes were in-period for 1922, but the traditional dress of the villagers was pretty timeless.

The singers and chorus worked outstandingly as a single ensemble. Marie McLaughlin stood out as Katerina, not just as the only substantial female character. Wearing probably the most unflattering dress any soprano has ever tolerated, she still looked beautiful and sang with an earthy passion and sympathy. Jorma Silvasti was a complex Manolios with a fine, authoritative voice. Timothy Robinson sang beautifully as Yannakos, the postman cast as James the apostle, and also caught the character's simple impulses, greed and then kindness. Gwynne Howell was very moving as Fotis, the refugees' priest.

This is undoubtedly a more difficult opera to stage than Martinu's revised version, which is effectively a different work with its tidy scenes and liturgical set pieces. This version is also emotionally more difficult: it is often not possible to say whether the liturgical music in particular is ironic or not, and the machinations and double-think of the village establishment are as painful to watch as the suffering of the refugees. The end is also more distressing, with the refugees not just moving on but being deliberately shut out. The Covent Garden audience seemed to appreciate the performances. But the Greek Passion, especially in this version and in this production, does not provide a conventional climax of emotion before we all go home. The departure of the refugees through the audience in the stalls at the end underlined the continuing conflict between compassion and complacency in everyone.

H.E. Elsom



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