When it was first seen at the Royal Opera House in 2000, David Poutney’s staging of Bohuslav Martinu’s last opera was greeted with critical acclaim and at least one prestigious award. Perhaps the stunningly huge revolving set was behind much of the production’s success, or perhaps the production’s direction has lost some of its nuance since the last time round, for despite an incredible cast of soloists, the score’s greatest living interpreter and the Royal Opera Chorus in tip-top form, the evening just failed to ignite.
As an opera, The Greek Passion blends the best traditions of Czech operatic music with a potentially arresting story, based on the novel Christ Recrucified by Kazantzakis. As the title suggests, the work concerns the projected performance of a Passion play in the village of Lycovrissi. Art mirrors life, however, as the villagers start to reflect the characters they have been chosen to play. The shepherd Manolios starts to preach to the refugees in the manner of Jesus and is killed by the jealous tanner Panait, who, not surprisingly, is playing Judas. Although the Passion is not literally performed in the opera, we have metaphorically experienced it in the events of ‘real life’ in the village.
On one level, it’s quite an unusual idea for an opera, yet the score’s indebtedness to Martinu’s favourite composers unfortunately reveals certain formulaic aspects. For example, the prominence of starving refugees in the story could be straight out of Mussorgsky’ Boris Godunov, seen here a year ago, or Dvorak’s continuation of the story, Dimitrij, seen at the Proms this summer – and the block chord progressions and frequent prayers (complete with astounding on-stage church bells) make the opera seem blatantly derivative at times. The influence of Janáček’s Jenufa is also apparent, especially in the turbulent parts of the story involving Katarina, the adultress playing Mary Magdalene.
There were, however, many highlights in a sometimes dull evening. Praise must especially go to Charles Mackerras, whose sensitive handling of the orchestral sections revealed much of the work’s beauty, while providing a sensitive accompaniment during the singers’ solo sections. This was especially welcome as the huge sets (first seen at Bregenz) did not allow space for a surtitle screen. The work was written and performed in English, however, and Mackerras’ care ensured we could hear almost every word. His appearances at Covent Garden are always special occasions – last year’s Rosenkavalier was a highlight, and I can’t wait to hear his interpretation of Die Zauberflöte in February 2005.
One of the most arresting passages was the first appearance of Willard White as the priest Fotis, leading the Turkish refugees into safety. After a tremendous Wotan in the Proms Rheingold this summer, White once again justified his international reputation with a powerful, exciting, yet detailed performance. He was backed by Robert Lloyd in the cameo part of an Old Man, who once again made one glad that his retirement from major roles in Simon Boccanegra in March of this year was only semi-retirement. He still projects his voice better than many younger singers of higher repute.
There were so many great soloists that it’s difficult to single out the best, but Marie McLaughlin’s Mary Magdalene was particularly vibrant, and the Vilar Young Artist James Edwards deserves mention for his arresting performance as the young shepherd Nikolios. Christopher Ventris as Manolios and Peter Sidhom as Grigoris are also two big reasons to see this show.
It is just a shame that such tremendous forces are being lavished on an opera which borders on pedestrianism at times. Nevertheless, at only £50 for a top-price ticket, it’s a curiosity which is worth investigation.