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The Greek Passion in a nutshell

Everything you need to know about Martinů’s The Greek Passion in one place, right here!

What is the story?

The Greek Passion is a passion play within a passion play. At the opening of the opera, members of a community are assigned roles in the upcoming Easter performance – including Manolios (who will play Christ), Katerina (Mary Magdalene) and her lover Panait (Judas).

However, the sudden arrival of a group of dispossessed refugees rips the community in two – should they be helped or turned away? As events unfold, those cast in the passion play grow so much into their characters that they in effect become them. For the elders, it’s all gone too far. They are losing their grip on the community as spiritual leaders, and Manolios must be stopped…

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Nicky Spence as Manolios, The Greek Passion © Tristram Kenton

Who are the key characters?

Manolios – plays Christ (tenor)
Katerina – Panait’s lover, plays Mary Magdalene (soprano)
Panait – Katerina’s lover, plays Judas (tenor)
Yannakos – plays Peter (tenor)
Priest Grigoris – leader of the Greek community (bass)
Priest Fotis – leader of the refugees (bass)

Magdalena Molendowska as Katerina and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Panait in rehearsal © Tom Arber

What is the music like?

Martinů’s score for The Greek Passion is totally unique. It is a collage of different musical styles – often leaping from one to the next in an instant, including both spoken and sung dialogue. The music of the Greek Orthodox Church is instantly recognisable through ancient, stoic chant, epic sacred choruses and chiming bells.

In complete contrast, folk tunes often appear (Martinů was known for assimilating the rhythms and melodies of Czech folk music into his own style), accompanied by accordion and kithara (lyre), creating a real street music feel. Listen below to a few extracts from our own cast, chorus and orchestra in rehearsal:

What is this production like?

This striking new production by Christopher Alden creates a universal context in which a community’s comfortable autonomy is put to the test. The set (by Charles Edwards) is stark and simple, centred on a pivoting unit of bleacher seating which represents both the gathering place of the community and the inhospitable mountainside to which the refugees are banished. Costumes (by Doey Lüthi) are timeless and sober in tone, contrasting with the colourful costumes worn by the players in the passion play.

The Greek Passion can require two choruses – the Greek community and a chorus of refugees. However, in this production, the expanded Chorus of Opera North will voice both groups, and the refugees will be visually represented by 46 life-sized effigies. These effigies have been created specially, using casts of the set designers’ bodies to produce moulds. The moulds have then been filled to produce finished products of a smooth, white egg shell texture. Below are the effigies being stored in the rehearsal studio.

See production photos

Effigies of the refugees in The Greek Passion rehearsal studio © Tom Arber

Who was the composer?

The Greek Passion was written by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959). Martinů was prolific, writing almost 400 pieces during his lifetime – operas, ballet scores, symphonies, concertos, chamber music and more.

Martinů wrote The Greek Passion between 1954 and 1957, based on the Greek novel Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis. He wrote the English-language libretto himself, based on an English translation of the novel.

Martinů could identify with The Greek Passion’s themes – he was displaced himself, living most of his life as a Czech in Paris. During the Nazi occupation he escaped to America, and returned to Europe in 1953, but never settled – The Greek Passion was apparently composed at a staggering 30 different addresses.

Bohuslav Martinů

Did you know?

There are two versions of The Greek Passion. The original score was turned down by Covent Garden in 1957, so Martinů rewrote the piece to follow a more conventional format, removing all spoken dialogue. This second version premiered in 1961, but the original wasn’t heard until 1999, when, after a complex reconstruction of scattered manuscripts, it was presented at Bregenz Festival, Austria. It is this first version of the opera – in which its spirit truly resides – which we will perform.

John Savournin as Priest Fotis (front) and Paul Nilon as Yannakos (back) with the Chorus of Opera North, The Greek Passion © Tristram Kenton

The Greek Passion is sung in English with English titles and lasts approximately 2 hours 30 minutes (including one interval). Join in on social media with #ONGreekPassion.

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