It is a sad reflection on our current climate, where posters depicting queues of refugees are deployed to incite anti-immigrant feelings, that Bohuslav Martinů's opera The Greek Passion stings with contemporary resonance. Inspired by Nikos Kazantzakis' novel Christ Recrucified, it tells the story of refugees fleeing a massacre. Seeking shelter in a Greek village, where the locals are preparing their Easter Passion play, they face a hostile reception and are turned away. The shepherd Manolios – chosen to portray Christ – stands up for them, but pays the ultimate price when the villagers turn on him and his “disciples”.

Nicky Spence (Manolios) © Tristram Kenton
Nicky Spence (Manolios)
© Tristram Kenton

The opera exists in two versions. Martinů set it in English, offering the original to Covent Garden in 1957, but it was rejected by the board. Wounded, the composed reworked it drastically for Zurich, given its premiere in 1961, after the composer's death. Aleš Březina reconstructed the original for David Pountney's Bregenz Festival production and it's his version, with some updated libretto insertions (“bloody vegan!”), which is used here by Opera North.

Christopher Alden sets his new production in the recent past, simply and without making any cheap political points. The Easter Bunny puts in an appearance, Yannakos' donkey becomes a bicycle and the young shepherd Nikolio serenades on his “pipe” via a cassette player, but there are no jarring digital interferences. Manolios is a greasy-haired loner, while Panait is a leather-clad biker, the word “haunted” tattoed across his forehead. There are similarities in Alden's treatment of the villagers of Lycovrissi and the inhabitants of The Borough in his brother David's Peter Grimes for ENO (2009), closed communities both; but where his Britten featured a gallery of grotesques, here the villagers' human frailties are all too real, especially the chosen six who take on their Passion roles.

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Panait) and Magdalena Molendowska (Katerina) © Tristram Kenton
Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Panait) and Magdalena Molendowska (Katerina)
© Tristram Kenton

Last December, Opera North became the first opera company in the UK to be awarded Theatre Company of Sanctuary status, recognising its efforts to create a welcoming environment for refugees and asylum seekers. In his staging, Alden casts the refugees as a population without a voice by representing them as white plaster effigies, carried in by the terrific Opera North Chorus and seated on a large wooden terrace – a silent minority. When one of them dies, an effigy is hooked up and raised to the flies. It is a powerful image.

The Chorus of Opera North © Tristram Kenton
The Chorus of Opera North
© Tristram Kenton

And there is a powerful central performance from Nicky Spence. For much of the opera, his Manolios is in a state of religious ecstasy, a meek, gentle giant toying with his crown of thorns, carrying an enormous weight of responsibility on his shoulders. His strong tenor has an heroic quality, but he reined it in with enormous sensitivity. Spence's eyes were often pricked with tears, his sincerity deeply moving.

The rest of the cast is strong. Magdalena Molendowska is a warm-voiced Katerina, the widow chosen to play Mary Magdalene, and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts convinced as the jealous Panait (Judas). The two priests on opposing sides of the debate were excellently cast: Stephen Gadd the gruff voice of intolerance as Father Grigoris; John Savournin in commanding form as the refugees' priest, Fotis, touchingly acted. Paul Nilon was in strong voice as Yannakos, who is shamed from his plan to fleece the refugees by their plight. Steven Page's Captain, an alcohol-soaked war veteran, narrates the opera in flashback, finally donning a Santa Claus outfit to drunkenly deposit a sack of presents for the refugees, freezing on the mountain-side.

John Savournin (Fotis), Nicky Spence (Manolios) and Magdalena Molendowska (Katerina) © Tristram Kenton
John Savournin (Fotis), Nicky Spence (Manolios) and Magdalena Molendowska (Katerina)
© Tristram Kenton

Garry Walker, Opera North's Music Director Designate, conducts a vivid account of Martinů's score, inflected with folk influences, such as the spicy accordion. But it's the string writing which wrings the heart, aching phrases played with great warmth.

At a time when the word “relevance” is bandied around all too frequently in relation to opera, Martinů's really does deserve that tag and it's a credit to Alden and his cast and production team that The Greek Passion hits home so strongly.

****1