Opera North: The Greek Passion – The Lowry

Originally written over 60 years ago, there is no denying the urgent relevance of Bohuslav Martinů‘s opera to a contemporary audience. The Greek Passion depicts the plight of refugees in an intolerant society, where they are shunned by the residents of a village. Priest Fotis, who travels with the group, makes a desperate plea for compassion and tolerance, as the refugees are left to starve upon the mountainside. He implores the villagers to give whatever they can spare.”We are nothing but a handful of Greeks upon the earth”.

The Greek Passion is performed in English with English surtitles, making it accessible for those with hearing impairments.

Opera North The Greek Passion Lowry Theatre Review
Manolios (Nicky Spence) re-enacts Christ carrying the cross in The Greek Passion. Picture Credit – Tristram Kenton.

As the title would suggest, The Greek Passion is loaded with religious symbolism. It begins with the village’s priests allocating roles for the annual Easter tradition of re-enacting the Passion of the Christ. They choose the faultless, devout shepherd, Manolios to portray Christ, in addition to assigning the roles of his apostles. As their lives become increasingly parallel to their biblical counterparts, they are the only people who show humanity and compassion towards the refugees.

Preaching the word of God, the pious Manolios becomes almost saintlike. Needless to say, the village elders and local priests see Manolios’ sermons as a dangerous threat and plot his downfall. The parallels between this opera and the New Testament make it profoundly powerful and poignant.

Nicky Spence is incredible in the role of Manolios. The weight and responsibility of being assigned to play the role of Christ is agonising to watch. He has to resist temptation from Magdalena Molendowska‘s beautifully enticing ‘Mary Magdalene’, in order to attain spiritual reverence. Spence forges a tortured, yet deeply compassionate figure through his character’s constant self reflection. He also physically conveys the burden of responsibility by carrying Christ’s wooden cross, whilst wearing the Crown of Thorns. It is extraordinary that Spence can still deliver resounding, heart-wrenching arias, under the enormous weight of the cross.

Opera North The Greek Passion Lowry Theatre Review
“Kyrie Eleison”. Striking visual imagery. Picture Credit – Tristram Kenton.

Throughout The Greek Passion, striking imagery is used to deliver a pertinent message of humanity. Breathtaking and haunting, Opera North’s chorus carry white effigies, each one signifying a refugee. Visually stunning, the idea of having the chorus provide desperate voices to these inanimate figures is inspired. I have never seen a chorus used to such astonishing effect, particularly in the spectacular, heartrending finale of act II, when they join Priest Fotis in a prayer, Kyrie Eleison, imploring the Lord to have mercy on them. It is sensational and profoundly hard-hitting.

I was deeply moved by John Savournin‘s Priest Fotis. One of the few characters who actually cares for the plight of his people, he pleads with the villagers, and with God, through tremendous, powerful hymns. Savournin affectionately walks amongst the effigies, tending to them, cradling the dying, and weeping for their plight. He perfectly portrays Fotis as a kind, compassionate, and morally righteous priest. He couldn’t be more different to the malevolent, merciless Priest Grigoris (Stephen Gadd), who polarises the village, turning its people against Manolios and the refugees.

The final image of The Greek Passion is so emotionally devastating, it has become seared in my mind. As the villagers celebrate Christmas, the refugee effigies are placed on their side. They are freezing and dying of starvation. Meanwhile, the villagers indulge in festivities, ironically celebrating the birth of Christ. In a heart-breaking image of burning injustice, Savournin‘s priest lies on the ground, barefoot, and without a shirt, sobbing and grieving for his starving people. The Captain (Steven Page) tenderly wraps his coat around Priest Fotis. This small act of kindness, in a world of intolerance, broke me, and I sat with tears streaming down my face.

Martinů’s opera is one that will stay with me for a long time. I have never seen an opera deliver a message so powerfully. Its striking visual imagery is both stunning and haunting. Savournin’s compassionate, humane Priest Fotis pierced my heart, and his grieving left me emotionally crushed and profoundly moved.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

“O Lord, let our cry,

Come unto Thee,

O Lord, our God”

Opera North The Greek Passion Lowry Theatre Review
Effigies of the refugees, carried by the Opera North’s chorus. Picture credit – Tristram Kenton.

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