The Greek Passion review Martinů’s fierce opera brings home refugee crisis

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“There are two great themes like trickles blood,” Bohuslav Martinů wrote The Greek Passion, “the heritage man’s Christian virtues and his obligations to humanity.” Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s Christ Recrucified, Martinů’s fierce last opera, given its first new UK production in nearly 20 years by Opera North, is set in a remote Greek village under Turkish rule, where the cast a Passion play, increasingly absorbed in their roles, take sides with a group refugees against authoritarian prejudice both religious and secular, with consequences that eventually prove fatal.

Hearing it in the 21st century is to be reminded that its indictment a society catastrophically divided between compassion and smug self-interest has become more resonant than ever. The close intersection between religion and politics, however, makes it a difficult prospect for directors, and Christopher Alden’s modern-dress staging occasionally errs on the side ritual stylisation rather than angry immediacy. Raked banks seats suggest both the mountain where the asylum seekers attempt to establish a home, and a classical theatre where this Greek tragedy slowly unfolds. The refugees carry their lives with them almost literally, in the form life-size effigies. For the final confrontation with authority, Christ-like Manolios (Nicky Spence) and his disciples arrive already dressed to enact a Passion which is going to play itself out in actuality. The ending, however, is anticlimactic and unduly protracted, some which is ultimately Martinů’s responsibility.

Musically, it’s extremely fine, and dominated by an exceptional central performance from Spence, who sounds glorious and admirably captures both the conviction the religious leader and the deeply troubled man beneath.

Among his followers are Magdalena Molendowska’s tender Katerina, Paul Nilon’s endearing Yannakos, and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, brutal yet empathetic, as the work’s Judas figure, Panait. John Savournin’s Fotis, the refugees’ zealous, passionate priest, sharply contrasts with Stephen Gadd’s hypocritical Grigoris, the villagers’ religious leader. The choral singing is thrilling, and Garry Walker conducts with a dark intensity that brings out both the score’s violence and its extraordinary moments ecstatic lyricism.

At Grand theatre, Leeds, until 19 October, then touring.