The Greek Passion

Music: Bohuslav Martinu; libretto: based on the text by Nikos Kazantzakis
Opera North
The Lowry (Lyric Theatre)

The inhabitants of a small Greek village, Lycovrissi, gather to hear the local priest, Grigoris, (and other notables) cast the main roles for this year’s Passion Play. Some of those chosen show reluctance through feeling inadequate: “come to church more often, stop beating your wife, put less barley in your coffee,” the priest counsels one such.

Others protest at the association in the role. Katerina, the widow is unhappy but accepting of the role of Mary Magdalen, but Panait, the village Hell’s Angel (think: nightclub doorman meets Viv from The Young Ones), rails against having to play Judas Iscariot. It’s a mark of the priest’s authority that, for all his protesting, he does it.

Finally, Manolios the shepherd is assigned the role of Christ. It proves to be a fateful decision. Although engaged to Lenio—daughter to one of the wealthier men of the village—Manolios already shows signs of susceptibility to the spiritual or other-worldly. The young shepherd takes the injunction to strive to be worthy of the role very much to heart.

The ceremony is disrupted by arrival of a desperate group refugees. Starving survivors of a Turkish attack on their village, they stagger into Lycovrissi bearing the bones of their ancestors (in this production, life-sized casts of human bodies, each in a sitting pose—Antony Gormley eat yer heart out!). These bones must be reinterred in whatever land they are allowed to make their new home.

And so we come to the crux of this morality tale. The good Christians of Lycovrissi, a place where even the village tough guy is uneasy about portraying the betrayer of Christ, fail to show a trace of charity to the desperately needy refugees. Their own priest, Fotis, pleads with Grigoris:

“Give us what you have too much of!”

Whilst the debate about what to do with the incomers goes to and fro, a refugee child dies. We know this because her spirit (in the shape of a white bodycast in sitting position) is hoisted into the sky, to hang, accusingly over the remainder of the production.

Grigoris himself seizes this sad passing as the chance to incite his villagers’ deep fears of incomers, by raising the spectre of cholera.

At first, only Katerina shows what might be described as Christian sympathy towards the needy strangers: “all men are good for a minute…” she observes, somewhat ambiguously.

In the end, Manolios (taking his assigned role to heart) offers them sanctuary on Sarakina mountain (where he tends his sheep).

This devout act is followed by various forms of temptation pushed at Jesus / Manolios and his 'disciples': sex, gold, envy. Just in case the audience has missed the point of the story, we are helpfully reminded when the words:

GIVE US WHAT YOU HAVE TOO MUCH OF

scribed in metre-square white letters, descend from above and hang over the congregation.

If only the Almighty had come up with this idea a few millennia back, he could have saved poor Moses the trouble of traipsing up and down Mount Sinai with those massive tablets of stone. The Lord works in mysterious ways, so they say. This director sometimes works in utterly unfathomable ones. Characterisation plays second fiddle to stylised posturing and the striking of tableaux (we’ll forgive a little of this latter, given the subject matter and the history of sacred art and Passion plays); whimsical elements—e.g. a 'Mexican' wave, and the Time Warp (The Rocky Horror Show) are thrown in willynilly. Some may love it. I stand with the Nillys not the Willys. Speaking of..er... willies: to demonstrate how forceful a temptation Magdalen / Katerina is, we are treated to the sight of Manolios—under cover of his blanket—contemplating her embrace while... er... as our Prime Minister might term it, 'spaffing'.

Manolios’s bold and charitable stance towards the refugees sets him at odds with Grigoris and other people of power in the village. He is undergoing a spiritual metamorphosis which sees him embracing Magdalen (Katerina) as his ‘sister’ rather than his lover. Freed from temptations of the flesh, when his fiancée, Lenio, leaves him to marry Nikolio, Manolios all but gives them his blessing.

The line (so far as Grigoris is concerned) is finally crossed when Manolios preaches to the villagers, delivering a parable about priestly poverty and charity. This is an implied criticism too far. Before the entire community, Grigoris proclaims Manolios excommunicated. The villagers round on the saintly shepherd, setting the stage for Judas / Panait to do his bit.

The journey for Panait (the reluctant Judas) is complex and his character arc demands more nuance than this production allows. One minute, Panait seems on the cusp of joining the disciples of Manolios, the next minute, he’s bashing Christ’s head in with… well, I won’t spoil it for you. As a director, Christopher Alden clearly favours visual spectacle over narrative coherence—some, no doubt, will feel that gives them value for money. There's no denying that Charles Edwards's set and lighting design is eye-catching.

Under the steady hand of chorus master Oliver Rundell, the Opera North chorus excels—as it always does—and there are some very strong vocal performances. John Savournin is captivating as Fotis, singing his compassionate heart out for his unfortunate flock (despite spending most of the show half-naked). Nicky Spence is irreproachable as Manolios—the lovely, warm tone of his voice, gliding through the auditorium. Narrator / Captain Steven Page (opening as an Easter Bunny, closing as Santa Claus) is another of the night's successes. Among all the visual kerfuffle, the sorry fate of the refugees is all but overlooked.

Garry Walker, in his debut as the incoming musical director of Opera North, delivers a tight and dynamic rendition of Martinu’s score. We look forward to more.

Exit director, Christopher Alden, sledgehammer aloft, pursuing walnut.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson