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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
The Greek Passion - opera in four acts after the novel 'Christ Recrucified' by Nikos Kazantzakis in a translation by Jonathan Griffin (1955-58)
English libretto by the composer
Manolios - John Mitchison (ten)
Katerina - Helen Field (sop)
Grigoris the Priest - John Tomlinson (bass)
Kostandis - Philip Joll (ten)
Fotis the Priest - Geoffrey Moses (bass)
Yannakos - Arthur Davies (ten)
Lenio - Rita Cullis (sop)
Nikolios - Catherine Savory (sop)
Panait - Jeffrey Lawton (ten)
Michelis - John Harris (ten)
Old man - David Gwynne (bass)
Andonis - Jeffrey Lawton (ten)
Despinio - Jana Jonášová (sop)
Patriarcheas - David Gwynne (bass)
Old woman - Catherine Savory (sop)
Ladas (spoken role) - Michael Geliot
Czech Philharmonic Chorus/Josef Veselka
Kühn Children's Chorus/Jíří Chvála
Brno State Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. Brno, 1981, DDD
SUPRAPHON 10 3611-2 632 [2CDs: 53.09+61.46]

During the mid-1950s Martinů was looking for a suitable Czech subject for an opera. He was knocked off course by discovering the Kazantzakis novel ‘Zorba the Greek’. He even toyed with setting Zorba but eventually found it an intractable challenge. He turned instead to the same author's ‘Christ Recrucified’ but changed the title to ‘The Greek Passion’. It is Martinů's last but one opera, the final one being Ariane (also recorded on Supraphon).

In 1957 he completed it ready for Kubelik to produce at Covent Garden however the Garden authorities rejected the work. Martinů went back to the drawing board and produced a transformed new version directing it to the Zurich Festival. The first version's materials were lost until a reconstruction was made ready for the Bregenz Festival in 1999. This was prepared by Aleš Březina. The Bregenz performance was recorded on Koch conducted by Ulf Schirmer. The Supraphon recording uses the revised version - the one premiered by Paul Sacher on 9 June 1961 two years after the composer's death. It took until 29 April 1981 for The Greek Passion to be premiered in the UK at the New Theatre Cardiff, Welsh National Opera under Charles Mackerras.

The plot. The setting is the Greek village of Lykovrissi. The time - early 20th century. A passion play is being prepared. Manolios is to play Christ. When some refugees arrive the priest tells then to leave. Manolios suggests where they might stay outside the village. Katerina is obsessed with Manolios. Manolios rejects physical passion with Katerina who plays Magdalene and she accepts spiritual love. Manolios becomes increasingly Christlike. At a village wedding the priest excommunicates Manolios. Panait, who plays Judas, kills Manolios outraged at his assumption of the role of Christ. There is mourning for the death and the refugees prepare to leave. The opera amplifies and distorts the usual interplay of love, guilt, envy and anger.

There are various spoken sections including in Act 3 the conversation between Grigoris, Patriarcheas and Ladas in which they condemn Manolios for his Christlike exhortations about sharing property and also in Act 2 Sc.1 when Ladas reveals his plans to exploit the desperate refugees.

This is a very different work from the opera Julietta. The floatingly surreal is replaced with a dramatically cogent sense of direction at both musical and narrative levels. Julietta can seem perplexingly poetic. The Greek Passion pushes forward all the time. Tragedy jostles with poetry. It helps that the libretto is in English.

The work bursts onto the scene like the start of La Bohème. After a reverential hymn the music delivers a buzzing tension, an exciting jangle of bells (a recurrent presence in this opera) and a hum of expectation. The choral contributions throughout have the colossal quality of Mussorgsky's crowd scenes. This applies to both the villagers' choir and the crowd of refugees. The orchestral tissue is rich and seething with Martinů hallmarks. In addition there are new touches like the guitar (bouzouki?) effects at 11.02 and 19 53 in Act 1. In the second act's first bars the orchestral evocation of a mystical dawn is touched with the exoticism of Szymanowski's King Roger. Folk influences are felt in both the concertina and Nikolios’s pipe playing on Mount Panagia. In Act 3 Grigoris, driven by hate, speaks his threats over drumbeats. In Act 4 there is the chatter and wheeze of the village band. The chanted word: ‘amin amin amin’ recalls the imploring calls of the choir in Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass. When Grigoris formally excommunicates Manolios, Michelis, Yannakos and Kostandis all stand with Manolios and the orchestra announces the joy of their fidelity to the ideal. This is Martinů’s closest approach to grand opera with tragic and spiritual dimension.

It is regrettable that Supraphon chose to have only a single band for each act. A full libretto is provided with sung English and parallel translations into German, French and Czech. There are no separate notes about the opera and its writing.

Rob Barnett



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