Bohuslav Martinu’s The Greek Passion may be more than 60 years old, but its contemporary relevance is stinging.
The Czech composer’s opera, presented by Opera North in its original 1957 version, tells the story of a group of refugees who flee to a Greek island where the villagers are performing a Passion Play for Easter. They face a hostile reception, but when the performers begin to take on aspects of their characters, passions are inflamed.
Charles Edwards’ set is both minimal and imposing, consisting of a huge bench-like steps structure, but it’s the representation of the refugees that really impresses. The Opera North chorus plays the roles of both the locals and the newcomers, holding stark white mannequins in their arms to give them a voice. When a refugee dies, the figure is hoisted up to the sky and the effect is eerie and unsettling.
Christopher Alden’s production makes some modern additions to Martinu’s music – there are touches of polka and folk to be heard, as well as a knee-slapping wedding song with its own synchronised dance routine. It’s also necessarily dark. Nicky Spence is a tormented figure as Manolios, the ordinary villager struggling to be worthy to play Christ, while Magdalena Molendowska’s affecting soprano brings out the pain in her portrayal of the widow Katerina.
There are some updates to the text too – an exclamation of “bloody vegans!” receives the biggest laugh of the night. Yet this remains an opera with a message – the phrase “give us more of what you have too much of” hangs over the stage towards the end of both halves. Opera North has produced an accessible and powerful production that hits home hard.