Martinu’s Greek Passion in Essen

Bohuslav Martinů was a prolific and eclectic composer. There is a vast gulf between the fun-loving works dating from his association with Les Six in Paris and those later in his career, serious and intense in character. The Greek Passion is one of the latter, and not easy to perform; there is a risk that its apparently simple morality will be treated as sanctimonious.  Based on the famous novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, at its core is Manolios a Christ figure whose spirituality is ambiguous and manifested chiefly in his compassion for a group of refugees. The topicality of this latter phenomenon might, in other directorial hands, have pushed to the forefront our contemporary problems in dealing with migration, but happily Jiří Heřman did not allow it to distract from the central  themes of religion and morality. In superb designs (by Dragan Stojčevski) which avoided too much realistic detail and concentrated on symbols – a wall, water, candles – he used thebroad expanses of the Essen stage to highlight personal isolation as well as community.

Musically, the most characterful aspects of the score remain with the orchestra, the vocal lines being predominantly declamatory. The conductor Tomáš Netopil was a forthright advocate for the diverse musical content: tension for the conflict between good and evil; precision and irony for the comic interludes; lyricism to reflect the serenity of inner conviction. Jessica Muirhead as the Mary Magdalene figure impressed both with her characterisation of the role and her seamless vocal outpourings. The American tenor Jeffrey Dowd wisely did not attempt to make too much of Manolios, and his restrained engagement with those around him reinforced the mystery of his personality. The Greek Passion is not a masterpiece but with such a satisfying presentation as that offered by the Essen company it is well worth reviving.