‘The world is a mystery … a great mystery … One cannot distinguish God from the demons … They often look so similar.’ (Giannakos in Christ recrucified by Nikos Kasantzakis).
The history of Bohuslav Martinů’s Greek Passion, which is based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel Christ recrucified, is itself full of drama. The rejection by Covent Garden of the original work led Martinu to create the Zurich version, which was first performed in 1961, two years after his death. In the same year, The New York Times wrote “above all, it is the music that makes this opera memorable. ... although the harmonies, rhythms and melodies are ‘conventional’, the way Martinů employs them is often imaginative and creative.”
The original version was reconstructed in 1999 and premiered as the so-called ‘London’ version at the Bregenz Festival.
Martinů’s opera develops the Christian doctrine of “love thy neighbour” ad absurdum, as a group of refugees are driven out of their little Greek village just as the village is putting on a Passion play for Holy Week. The piece is centred on the general question of humanity. The Passion story is robbed of its uniqueness and revealed as a simple precedent for eternal tragedy. Martinů, who was forced to emigrate from the south of France to the USA in 1940 when Paris fell to the Nazis, had his own experience of the pain of being a refugee. The Greek Passion is considered one of his most coherent and mature scores. For this exciting and vigorous work, Martinů developed a tonal language which combined his early musical experiences with elements of Greek folklore, Greek Orthodox liturgy and dance music.
The biblical story is disconcertingly familiar, portraying the misery of refugees, the remorselessness of the propertied classes and abuse of authority by the establishment.
The Wermland Opera is showing Mira Bartov’s new production of the London version (14 September–28 October). Johannes Gustavsson conducts.