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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
The Greek Passion (1957 version) [137.03]
Rolf Romei, tenor (Manolios); Dshamilja Kaiser, soprano (Katerina); Manuel von Senden, tenor (Yannakos); Wilfried Zelinka, bass (Grigoris); Tatjana Miyus, soprano (Lenio); Markus Butter, bass (Fotis); Martin Fournier, tenor (Michaelis); Taylan Reinhard, tenor (Panait); Dariusz Perczak, baritone (Konstandis); Sanggyoul Lee, tenor (Andonis); Christian Scherler, tenor (Nikolio); Sofía Mara, soprano (Despinio); Yuan Zhang, contralto (Old woman); Konstyantin Sfiris, bass (Old man); Ivan Oreščanin, bass (Archon); Tino Sekay, speaker (Ladas); Dietmar Hirzberger, baritone (Captain); Falz Witzurke, baritone (Schoolmaster); Richard Friedemann Jähnig, baritone (Dimitri); David McShane, baritone (Canto); Benjamin Plautz, commentator
Graz Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus, Graz University Choir
Graz Philharmonic Orchestra/Dirk Kaftan
rec. live, Graz Opera, March/April 2016
OEHMS CLASSICS OC967 [68.40 + 68.23]

Like many British listeners, I suspect that my first encounter with Martinů’s The Greek Passion came with the production by Welsh National Opera in Cardiff in 1981. With innocent ears we encountered a thrilling score, full of passion and drama, and the production was so engaging that it was shortly afterwards nominated in a poll by WNO audiences as the opera which they most wished to see revived on stage. That production, sung in English (it had originally been intended by the composer for performance at Covent Garden) and conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, was shortly afterwards taken with more or less the same solo cast into a Brno studio by Supraphon, but with a Czech orchestra and chorus substituting for the Welsh forces, and the resulting digitally recorded LPs have been subsequently transferred to CD with great success. Oddly enough at much the same time Supraphon made a second recording, this time conducted by Libor Pešek in Prague, with an entirely Czech cast and using the Czech language. Although the latter set is available at mid price (the Mackerras recording still retails at full whack), I can see no reason for English-language listeners to choose a version in Czech when Martinů himself seems to have envisaged a first production in English. (Supraphon themselves seem to have recognised this fact, since the Prague set took a good few years to become readily available on an international basis.)

Mind you, Martinů’s command of English was far from comprehensive; the libretto of The Greek Passion which he himself constructed contains a fair number of pretty garbled phrases, and Mackerras and his Welsh cast employed an adapted version by Brian Large in more idiomatic prose. There were also a number of other alterations to the text of the opera as performed in Cardiff and recorded in Brno, as Martinů himself continued to tinker with both the libretto and music for some years. What is different about this set is that it reverts to Martinů’s original version of the score, not performed at all until 1991 after what the booklet in this set calls “scientific editing and reconstruction” by Ales Brezina. I am far from convinced of the validity of this approach. The version that Martinů finally resolved upon, that employed in Cardiff, Brno and Prague, was not – like the ‘revisions’ forced upon Bruckner, for example, by well-meaning pupils and advisers – the result of any outside pressure from conductors or directors; the revisions proceeded unprompted from the composer himself as the result of further consideration of the music of his opera. There might be some academic interest in the score as it existed before these alterations were made; but such considerations have already been satisfied by the existence of a recording from the Bregenz Festival issued on Koch in 2001 (albeit no longer available at the time of writing except at a swinging price of over £100 from Amazon). The revisions Martinů made after the opera had been rejected for performance by Covent Garden in 1957 were generally improvements, expanding the lyrical elements in the score; and I cannot therefore see any justification for reverting to the earlier version for theatrical presentation. This recording slightly concedes the point by making some cuts in the text as presented, which means that unlike the Bregenz production it does not even have the purity of musicological logic on its side.

The plot of the opera is quite unlike most of Martinů’s other dramatic output in that it is generally realistic and devoid of the phantasmagorical and surreal elements to be found in – to take one example – Julietta. Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, on which the libretto is based, is set during the period immediately following the First World War when Greece attempted forlornly to resurrect the Byzantine Empire on the ruins of the old Ottoman realm. This objective ran into the revival of the Turkish secular state under Kemal Ataturk, which resulted in an exodus of Greek refugees from the remaining Hellenic colonies on the coast of Asia Minor – modern parallels are inescapable here. The scene is set in a Greek village where the incoming refugees are resented as interlopers by the priests and elders, who are at the same time intent on staging their own version of the Passion play featuring a local shepherd in the role of Christ. The results are predictable: the shepherd, sympathetic to the plight of the incomers, is killed by his own people, and the refugees are forced to seek asylum elsewhere. What makes the work so moving is the simple faith of the shepherd and his followers, who see visions of both damnation and salvation and encounter an apparition of Christ himself on the mountainside – the last a riveting moment of theatre in Michael Geliot’s production in Cardiff produced almost entirely by Martinů’s music and the simplest of lighting effects.

I have to admit that the Welsh production of the opera went somewhat ‘off the boil’ during its transition to the studio in Brno. The choral singing was less well assured on the recording, and the mystical encounter of Manolios and his followers sounded rather more matter-of-fact on disc. But the solo singing cast was stupendous, the best that the Welsh National Opera could field at the time, including the heroic John Mitchinson, the team of Helen Field and Arthur Davies who impressed in so many productions during these years, the young Geoffrey Moses, the ethereal Rita Cullis, the future Siegfried Jeffrey Lawton, and the future Wotan John Tomlinson (replacing Richard van Allan from the Cardiff cast). It cannot be pretended that the cast in Graz is anything like as stellar as that. Even in minor roles none of the singers surpass their competitors chez Mackerras; and unfortunately the least competitive of all is Rolf Romei in the pivotal role of the shepherd Manolios. This is one of those parts that is admittedly almost impossible to cast satisfactorily, since the demands range from the conversational through delicate lyricism to heroic outbursts of positively Wagnerian stature – a Gerontius with the stamina of Tristan, in fact, which is exactly what Mitchinson was. Romei lacks warmth in the quiet passages, and although he bravely enters into competition with the orchestra in the climaxes he is clearly fighting a losing battle both with the pit and the English language. Similarly Wilfried Zelinka and Markus Butter as the rival priests both lack the essential dark tone which is necessary if they are to differentiate their confrontation, which is often delivered with a singular lack of conviction. Dshamilja Kaiser and Manuel von Senden, too, fail to bring to their roles the lyrical sweetness that came so naturally to Field and Davies in Cardiff and Brno. Some of the minor performers – notably the tiresome drunken captain whom Martinů thankfully removed in his revisions – actually distort their pitch and guy their music in an almost operetta-like fashion, possibly in a misguided attempt to convey character which borders in places on caricature. But then none of them are singing or speaking in their native language (with the exception of the American David McShane in a very minor role); and the range of accents from cod-Greek through German to Americanised English (of the sort many European English-speakers acquire from Hollywood movies) can sometimes be startling especially in spoken dialogue. The choruses give a good account of themselves and their music, but the orchestra often sound strident and the theatre acoustic boosts the brass and percussion at the expense of the woodwind and even more seriously the violins, even though Dirk Kaftan clearly has the measure of the score. Obviously the offstage effects in a live performance cannot be as clearly observed as in the Brno studio recording.

What to me however must totally rule this set out of consideration is what happens after the murder of Manolios. In Martinů’s final revised version this leads into an extended ensemble involving the whole body of soloists and chorus which is surely one of the greatest passages that the composer ever penned, if not one of the most magnificent in all of Czech opera. So effective is it that it comes as something of a shock when the music reverts to ‘normal mode’ as the plot draws to a conclusion. It is therefore with consternation that one discovers in this ‘original’ edition that Martinů at first envisaged nothing of the sort. The murder of Manolios is more noisily accomplished, and the music then drops back to spoken dialogue with only the very opening phrase of the later ensemble finally appearing after some three or four minutes before subsiding back. I cannot conceive that the composer would ever have wished his opera to appear on stage in this mangled form. It is surely not just memories of Geoffrey Moses and Rita Cullis singing in soft meditation at the beginning of this ensemble which convinces me of the absolute necessity of including the section in any performance of the opera. (It was ruined in the BBC broadcast relay from Cardiff by the sound of a police siren in the street outside.)

For those who want nevertheless to experience this mutilated version of the score, I should note that it comes handsomely packaged with a complete libretto (in English only) which rather quaintly states that “linguistic roughness in the English text was preserved as being in character with the work.” Again I am not convinced that Martinů would not have wished to correct the English to more idiomatic terms if Covent Garden had ever agreed to put the work into rehearsal. Nor am I clear why German audiences should have been denied a translation of the text, although they are provided with an essay on the work and a brief synopsis. Those who are allergic to such things may wish to note that, although the recording is advertised as taken from live performances, there is no evidence of any audience in the form of applause.
 
Interestingly enough there is also a DVD version of The Greek Passion available on Supraphon deriving from a Czech television presentation of 2000 and utilising the soundtrack of Mackerras’s Brno recording. This still remains the most economical manner of acquiring the opera (some £10 cheaper than the CDs) but, although I have not heard it, according to various reviews the score has been cut down by nearly half-an-hour. Under the circumstances the CD set remains the most recommendable version for the general purchaser, although as Rob Barnett pointed out in his review of that issue on this site the fact that there are no individual bands for the scenes within the Acts is a drawback. Tracking on this new set is more generous.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

 




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