Magazine article The Spectator

Misplaced Faith

Magazine article The Spectator

Misplaced Faith

Article excerpt

Opera

The Greek Passion (Royal Opera House) La Gioconda (Opera North)

Michael Tanner

By the time he composed The Greek Passion, Martinu had written 12 operas, so he should have had some idea of what would work in the theatre. Evidently, from the painstaking reconstruction of his original score in the version by Ales Brezina currently running at the Royal Opera, he had learned nothing from his previous attempts. It is both flawed on its own terms and woefully misconceived.

The production by David Pountney and the musical realisation by a uniformly excellent set of singers, the chorus and orchestra on magnificent form, under the evangelical leadership of Charles Mackerras, serves a useful purpose: it demonstrates conclusively that the piece can't work. Granted that it is in the nature of an extended musical-dramatic parable, it is still the case that the characters, to move and convince, must be more than cardboard cut-outs. They are given no vitality either by the language they use - the English is audible throughout - or the music to which much of it is set; there are strange lapses into mere speech, based on no principle.

The text is so banal that after a time I began to play at guessing how people's lines would finish, and in a vexingly large percentage of cases I was right. The music is an amalgam, the most personal elements being jagged Janacek-like phrases, whose evocation of that far greater composer is fatal. Otherwise there are snatches of chant, broad chorales with Anglican harmonies, middlebrow mannerisms of the international modernists of the post-war decade. It sounds as if it is aiming to please, as Martinu so often tries to. Yet his message is one which will please few people, other than in indignant theory: that we should take refugees in and care for them. Noble as that view sounds, it would only work in practice in a society that was Christian through and through, which is to say quite unlike any that has ever existed. Probably an opera is not the place, in any case, to work out the implications of that programme.

What a pity that when Pountney gets hold of a fine opera he often messes around with it, but that such a stillborn work as this should have so inspired him. Stefanos Lazaridis has provided a rivetingly interesting set, a huge series of staircases, with villagers or refugees, according to which part of it is on display, teeming on it as on an Escher drawing, seeming to arrive at the bottom by climbing. …

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