Classical music: A new, improved Martinu

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WHEN WELSH National Opera gave the much-delayed UK premiere of Martinu's The Greek Passion in 1981- it had been intended for Covent Garden in the late 1950s - there was a vague feeling about that we weren't listening to it quite as the composer intended. But seduced by the beauty of the score and the sheer dramatic efficiency with which Martinu delivers this modern retelling of the Passion story, the product seemed more than enough - until now. After some four years of exhaustive research and near-miraculous luck in turning up hitherto lost material, the original version, reconstructed by Ales Brezina, arrived at the Bregenz Festival.

It is virtually a different opera. Although many of the musical elements are the same, the earlier work is bigger-boned, craggier in outline, its tone often earthier. Manolios, the villager who takes on the persona of Christ - superbly sung and acted by Christopher Ventris - is much more human than in the later version, his statements much less apt to be surrounded by a halo of orchestral sound. Comparisons between the two versions could be endless, but in the end, Martinu's original conception emerges as one of the most urgent and poignant experiences mid-20th-century opera has to offer.

David Pountney's inspired production seizes every opportunity in Martinu's epic scenario. The brutality of the village elders, the Scribes and Pharisees of his modern Passion story, their venality and hypocrisy emerges with appalling force; the Apostles, the villagers who take part in the Passion play, are entirely believable as they grow into their roles. Most impressive of all is the way in which Pountney presents the conflict between two communities: the prosperous villagers of Lycovrissi and the refugees, whose arrival in their midst precipitates the central crisis of the opera.

Martinu's drama is played out in a series of widely contrasting tableaux. Stefanos Lazaridis's set, like Pountney's production, adds enormously to the coherence of the narrative: like a multidimensional chessboard, at times it is like a wall of ikons, at others it opens up to reveal the many layers at work in the opera. Without exception, the singers contributed magnificently to the sense of ensemble: Yannakos, who takes on the role of Peter, was sung with touching vibrancy by John Daszak, and Nina Stemme, wholly believable as the Magdalena figure, sang with exemplary clarity.

As the two priests of the opposing communities, Grigoris (Esa Ruuttunen) and Fotis (Egils Silins) were extraordinarily compelling. Ulf Schirmer conducted with insight and a firm command of musical pacing. A certain amount of synthesised sound created some odd aural perspectives and the string ensemble could have been both stronger and tighter, but none of this got in the way of a powerfully committed performance.

The message this first version of the opera tells with such harrowing directness, namely that the world is still a harsh place for the outcast and Christian compassion still struggles to take root, was perhaps to strong for the late 1950s in a world still predicated on hope. Few of those who saw the ravaged lines of refugees filing out through the audience during the closing pages of this astonishing score could have doubted that in our own desperate times, this version of the opera has come of age.

Jan Smaczny

`The Greek Passion' is a co-production with the Royal Opera House where it will be performed next Easter