Review: The Greek Passion, Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre
4.0Overall Score

The Greek Passion by Martinu, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s Christ Recrucified, is a bold season season opener for Opera North who have just recently been awarded Theatre of Sanctuary status. The opera, sung in English, tells the tale a tale of a group of villagers assigning the roles of the apostles in an Easter Passion play, with Manolios (Nicky Spence) set to play Christ. The arrival of a group of refugees, who have fled their homes, induces tension in the community and significant divisions are formed as a result.

This is a powerful production which, although written in the mid 20th century, speaks to our present moment. Pertinent ideas about generosity and empathy, as well as hypocrisy and cruelty are put under scrutiny, as villagers who hold their Christian faith dear refuse to open their hearts and homes to destitute strangers. 

The staging (designed by Charles Edwards) is an interesting choice, minimalist in style – a wooden seating bank (which doubles up as a mountaintop as the story progresses) taking up most of the stage. The chorus remain a steady audience throughout, reinforcing how this tale is ultimately about representation, being an onlooker to injustice, as well as the idea of judgement itself. Their constant presence on the seating banks aptly emphasises how the villagers are themselves being judged, all the while they demonise and scorn the destitute refugees who have fled their homeland. The refugees, intriguingly also voiced by the chorus, are visually represented by life sized white effigies, a sea of inanimate objects, mirroring the hostile way they are perceived by the villagers.

The music is beautiful and breathtakingly powerful, masterfully held by a heartfelt story that packs in abundant detail, twists and turns and moves at a steady pace as each of the characters taking on the apostles embarks on their own journeys, opening their eyes to the injustices at their doorstep. Its a stunning production delicately balancing the mesmerising music, powerful storytelling as well as a strong social message, holding mirror up to the institutions and communities which claim to be righteous.

Whilst the passion and emotion are unrelenting, the subtle moments are equally overwhelming; when Yannakos (Paul Nilon), swayed by poisonous rhetoric, is instructed to go to the mountains where the refugees have been exiled, and to steal from them. It is only when he sees a procession taking place that the full horror of what he has set out to do dawns on him. The grand harmonies and soundscapes of Kyrie Elison are sonically arresting, but equally vital to the success of this opera are these skilfully and subtly depicted moments of understanding, empathy and human connection.

The Greek Passion is playing the Leeds Grand Theatre until 27 September, and then tours until November 2019. For more information and tickers, visit the Opera North website.