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The Greek Passion in London

Following up on my preview of the Opera Season, 2004–2005, the opera The Greek Passion, by Bohuslav Martinů, was finally produced at the Royal Opera House, at Covent Garden, in London. That production in 2000 is being revived there this fall, until October 1. The review (All drift and no passion, September 17) by Rupert Christiansen for The Telegraph is positive about the production and the performers but cold on the opera:

But the awful thing is that, for two reasons, I found the evening lifeless. Although much has been made of the opera's relevance to the current crises over refugees and asylum seekers, it doesn't really deal with the issues we face today: the refugees here are of the same race and religion (Greek Orthodox) as those they seek shelter with, and the village is a tight, poor and self-sufficient community. Martinu's libretto establishes potentially enthralling situations and encounters, but never pulls them together into any decisive conflict, confrontation or climax: instead, the drama just drifts. The score similarly lacks focus. A telling sign is the amount of speech and bare parlando employed – it's as though Martinu doesn't quite trust music to tell a story or illuminate character.

There are several arresting episodes, such as the grand choral "Kyrie", and a catchy folk-song and dance. But there's no point where the voices are allowed to expand lyrically or where the whirring, spluttering, groaning, exploding orchestra finds a true dramatic pulse and pace. The sad truth may be that Martinu was not much of an opera composer. Just think how Janácek would have moulded this material.
From Edward Seckerson, Heaven and earth show (The Independent, September 20):
There is something decidedly filmic about the way The Greek Passion works. The way scenes run on or jump-cut into one another; the way speech pulls focus like a sudden close-up; the way the underscoring works; the way the lofty is juxtaposed with the lowly. Pountney makes capital of it all. And I cannot emphasise enough just how vital the Lazaridis design is in enabling him to do so. Visually, it works on so many levels. Literally. The overriding sense is of a community, a village clinging to a mountainside. The vertiginous structure conveys that. The platforms become individual dwellings within that village. The raw wood conveys both rusticity and the omni-presence of the cross.

Because The Greek Passion is precisely what it says on the score. Or, to be even more precise, a passion play within a passion play. As the Greek villagers prepare to act out the Easter story, they grow so much into the characters they are portraying that they in effect become them. And for the elders who cast them in the first place, that's a reality too far. Especially when the arrival of dispossessed asylum-seekers threatens to divide the community. Sounding familiar?
Other articles to see:I'm not sure but, if you are in London, you may still be able to get one of those discounted seats (Royal Opera offers seats for £10, April 6, BBC News).

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