A fine Greek Passion in Karlstad

SwedenSweden Martinů, The Greek Passion: Soloists, Wermland Opera Chorus and Orchestra/ Johannes Gustavsson (conductor) Wermland Opera, Karlstad, 14.9.2017. (GF)

Peter Kajlinger (Captain/Commentator) and Niklas Björling Rygert (Manolios)
Peter Kajlinger (Captain/Commentator) & Niklas Björling Rygert (Manolios) (c) Mats Bäcker

Priest Grigoris – Marcus Jupither
Archon – Johan Wållberg
Captain/Commentator – Peter Kajlinger
Schoolmaster – Fredrik Sjöstedt
Ladas – Björn Eduard
Kostandis – Anders Larsson
Dimitri – Staffan Alveteg
Manolios – Niklas Björling Rygert
Yannakos – Carl Ackerfeldt
Michelis – Hallvar Djupvik
Panait – Johannes Held
Andonis – Christian Berndalen
Nikolio – Theodor Uggla
Lenio – Anna-Maria Krawe
Widow Katerina – Charlotta Larsson
Priest Fotis – Johan Schinkler
Despinio – Maria Mayer
An old woman – Margareta Dalhamn
An old man – Tomas Bergström
Captain as a child – Philip Valle

Direction – Mia Bartov
Sets – Gunnar Ekman
Lighting design – Fredrik Glahns
Costumes – Kajsa Larsson
Mask and wig design – Robin Karlsson

The Greek Passion became a problem child for Bohuslav Martinů. He worked on it from 1954 and until January 1957, and since it was planned for premiere at Covent Garden the libretto was in English. His compatriot Rafael Kubelik, musical director at Covent Garden since 1955, had seen the score and wanted to conduct it. The board was favourable, but in the end one of its members, Sir Arthur Bliss, asked several competent musicians to examine the score, who all had serious objections to both the libretto and the music, the result being that the work was rejected. Martinů then spent a year and a half revising it so drastically that the new version was in fact a new opera. It was premiered in Zürich in 1961, two years after the composer’s death. The Covent Garden version was not staged until 1999 in Bregenz. The following year, it finally reached Covent Garden after a delay of over forty years. The libretto, by the composer, is based on Jonathan Griffin’s translation of the novel The Greek Passion (or Christ Recrucified) by Nikos Kazantzakis.

It is set in a Greek village planning a Passion Play for Easter. The local priest, Grigoris, distributes the leading roles among the villagers. Manolios is selected for the role of Christ and Widow Katerina is to play Mary Magdalene. They all take this very seriously and become deeply involved in their roles, which also changes their personal lives. At dawn, a group of refugees arrive from a village destroyed by fire. Grigoris wants to send them away, but Katerina tries to help them and Manolios and the apostles join her in offering them food and advising them to stay on a nearby mountain. In the following acts, the conflict between the refugees and the villagers escalates. Manolios becomes more and more involved in his role as Christ and preaches mercy towards the refugees. Grigoris is upset about Manolios’ preaching and excommunicates him, but Manolios continues. Grigoris stirs up the villagers against Manolios and he is killed. The refugees leave in search of a new place to stay.

In the light of the present refugee crisis and the ensuing political conflicts, The Greek Passion is certainly topical. There are no simple solutions, and idealists and humanitarians are often losers in a hardened political climate. Martinů himself knew what it was like to be a refugee. He was forced to flee when the Germans invaded France in 1941, and he must have had strong feelings about this work. His disappointment when it was turned down by Covent Garden was great, and even though he was confident that the revised version would be staged in Zurich, he did not live to see it performed. Wermland Opera’s initiative to stage this relatively rare bird – this is the first production, not only in Sweden but in the entire Nordic area  – can only be applauded. Musically it is multi-faceted – as Martinů’s music often is – and more approachable than many of his works. It is basically tonal, often melodious and many passages are truly beautiful. The chorus is very important and the church anchorage lends a certain feeling of oratorio to the experience.

Conductor Johannes Gustavsson mentioned in a TV-preview that the work is contemporaneous with West Side Story, and even though one can hardly hear any influence from Bernstein, it is true that Martinů was aware of new trends in his musical environment. There are no arias in the traditional sense, but much of the solo singing is very gratifying for the voices – and there are great voices participating in this production. On the other hand, there is also a considerable amount of spoken dialogue – Martinů’s musico-dramatic pallet is truly all-embracing.

The sets remain unchanged throughout the four acts: a large assembly hall with a balustrade as a second floor, which also functions as the mountain where the refugees are staying.

In the first act, when Grigoris announces the names of those who have been selected to act in the Passion Play, the congregation – or part of it, at least – is seated around a long table with the priest at the end, almost creating an allusion to da Vinci’s The Last Supper. There is a considerable amount of bustle on stage, and although from my seat at the side of the second balcony I found it difficult to follow everything that was happening, it did seem that at times there was a little too much crawling on the floor. All in all, however, this was a gripping and engaging realisation of a fascinating work.

I was deeply impressed by the acting and singing of the large cast. The central character was of course Manolios, and Niklas Björling Rygert, a pillar of strength at the Stockholm Royal Opera for many years, was superb. Not only a splendid actor, he is also an expressive singer and his involvement was tangible. As Widow Katerina, soprano Charlotta Larsson added another well rounded portrait to her long list of great roles. I have fond memories of her Aida some ten years ago and she has preserved her lirico-spinto voice in mint condition. Markus Jupither’s Priest Grigoris was formidable, both vocally and scenically, and Johan Schinkler’s thunderous bass and noble bearing made him a memorable Priest Fotis. Peter Kajlinger was an excellent Captain/Commentator and Carl Ackerfeldt poured out golden tones and acted convincingly as Yannakos.

Joakim Unander had adapted the music for the orchestral forces available in Karlstad and Johannes Gustavsson led the proceedings with obvious inspiration. There are only ten performances scheduled and anyone with even the slightest interest in operas off the beaten track should seize the opportunity and make a pilgrimage to Karlstad to see this fascinating work.

Göran Forsling

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