MARTINŮ The Greek Passion
Martinů’s The Greek Passion, with its tale of refugees and the lack of tolerance which divides the community where they attempt to settle, is full of striking contemporary resonances. The opera was inspired by Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel Christ Recrucified, in which refugees from a Turkish massacre seek shelter in a Greek village as the locals are preparing their annual Easter Passion play. Many of the villagers live out their Passion roles in real life, resulting in the Christ-figure of Manolios, the local shepherd, being stoned to death by his fellow villagers for standing by the refugees. Martinů, who spent much of his life in exile, wrote some of his most beautiful, profound music for what is probably his finest stage work.
There are essentially two versions of The Greek Passion. It was originally recommended to the Board of the Royal Opera House in 1957 by Rafael Kubelík but the management turned it down. Martinů, wounded by this rejection, reworked it drastically for Zurich, its 1961 premiere taking place after the composer’s death. This revision is the one that features on Charles Mackerras’s Supraphon recording with the Czech Philharmonic. Aleš Březina then reconstructed the original for David Pountney’s Bregenz Festival production, itself recorded in 1999 (Koch Schwann, 10/00 – nla). This new recording on Oehms is also of Martinů’s original version (though there’s nothing in the booklet to indicate as such), taken from performances at Oper Graz in 2016. The voices on the recording have great presence and there is minimal stage noise.
The score is a minor miracle, Martinů cutting rapidly from scene to scene, a patchwork quilt of many different styles including Greek Orthodox-style psalms and folk elements of recorder and accordion. Dirk Kaftan conducts the Graz Philharmonic in a performance of great sincerity. The opera also includes plenty of dialogue. Martinů’s English text is already clumsy but its delivery in Graz is less than idiomatic, especially when compared with the British stalwarts on Supraphon, but the singing is reasonably strong. Wilfried Zelinka sings the testy priest Grigoris, though lacks the gruff bass authority of John Tomlinson, while Markus Butter is a moving Fotis, the refugees’ priest. Swiss tenor Rolf Romei sings most movingly as Manolios, the young shepherd chosen to play Christ, with great attention to text, while Dshamilja Kaiser is a striking Katerina, the villager in love with Manolios. The string phrase when Katerina donates her shawl to one of the refugees is an example of Martinů at his most open-hearted.
Indeed, this is a touching opera and there’s a naivety about Martinů’s original which makes this recording, despite its flaws, profoundly moving. The booklet includes photographs of the Graz production, which looks rather beautiful. It would be wonderful if a DVD were to appear.