A passion for our times that finally lost the plot

The Greek Passion | Royal Opera House, London Dorothea Röschmann | Wigmore Hall, London Gabrieli Consort and Players | Barbican, London
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Covent Garden must have been rubbing its hands in glee over the past month's news; an obscure twentieth century Czech opera on the unglamourous subject of asylum seekers can't be easy to lure an audience to under normal circumstances, but here was William Hague acting as a rabid PR agent. For free! On Tuesday night the heavens opened and the streets were filled with the slap-slack sound of kitten heels skidding expensively on wet pavement. Dozens of designer-clad Vanessa Feltz lookalikes (before, after and during the divorce diet) and their beaus scuttled into the Opera House, seeking plush velvet sanctuary from the downpour. It was a perfect, paradoxical setting - but the topicality that should have worked so well for Martinu's Greek Passion turned out to be its undoing.

The story itself is clear enough; the village of Lycovrassi is casting its annual Passion Play. Manolios (a shepherd, naturally) is chosen as Christ, Katerina (the village whore) as Mary Magdalen, Yannakos (the postman) as Peter. The arrival of a group of refugees fleeing Turkish oppression divides the village into knee-jerk liberals and cold-hearted protectionists. Grigoris, the priest and father figure of the community, puts about the rumour that the refugees carry cholera and they are banished, hungry, to the mountain. Each actor in the Passion Play then begins to assume his apostolic role like rustic Stanislavsky students - a move that in Manolios' case ultimately proves fatal. But to say that The Greek Passion is actually about refugees is misleading - it's about structure, fear and power in a community, and what a society's attitudes towards charity reveal about its individual members.

Martinu's original version of this opera is hard to grasp; his orchestration (particularly the mixed block chords of brass and woodwind) is as translucent as stained glass, his chorus writing meaty and defined. But though the melodic and harmonic language is lucid and even beautiful at times, the music works in an anti-narrative fashion and forces you to realise how dependent you are as a listener on clear musical characterisation. It's as if James Joyce had rewritten Raymond Chandler. There is no obvious thematic arc; ideas are thrust out like flashcards, frequently interrupted or overlaid by spoken dialogue. It was therefore quite some achievement that Sir Charles Mackerras, a champion of Czech repertoire, managed to sculpt the orchestra and singers so cohesively.

The performances were mostly faultless; Timothy Robinson (Yannakos) showed an outstanding fluency with Martinu's choppy hybrid of recitative and melody. The voice is not at its prettiest on high notes but the middle and bottom are bright and persuasive and he's a clever, energetic actor. For sheer vocal colour he was outshone by Jorma Silvasti's Manolios but Silvasti was sounding a bit creaky by Act Four, and that was before he was excommunicated and stoned to death for being a do-gooder. Esa Ruuttunen as Grigoris had that kind of old-fashioned, authoritative, firm and glittery bass voice that is always a treat to hear and Marie McLaughlin was superb as Katerina: nervously brave, with a faded small-town glamour.

With such sympathetic individual performances and so many contemporary resonances, The Greek Passion should have been moving but somehow it wasn't. The whole production had that innocent air of Fifties modernism, and therefore looked very old-fashioned. The set looked - and smelt - promising enough at first, with overlaid vertical blocks of muted early Braque greys and browns which were removed to reveal a thurible of pungent incense and several huge (and very loud) golden bells hanging over a multi-layered wooden staircase. Later - to no obvious end - the entire stage revolved, but it was no more powerful or attractive or symbolic for being spun around, ad by the final series of revolutions I was aching for it to go anti-clockwise at least the once..

But the dramatic heart of the production failed in the chorus work, despite their compelling singing. We have seen so much news footage of the Balkans in recent years that dressing well-upholstered singers in grey-blue rags and smudging them with a bit of charcoal simply doesn't persuade. It didn't help that their movements were straight out of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead; what looked a bit silly on stage was really dreadfully hammy when paraded through the auditorium at the close of the opera. The chorus of refugees were staggering through an audience that would in the next 10 minutes or so be going out into the rainy glitz of Covent Garden and attempting not to see, well, real refugees of one form or another. Compassion fatigue is a sad, guilty fact of modern life. Had a less literal, less retro direction been used, The Greek Passion might have worked better. As it was, it was demanding to listen to but unengaging to watch.

There was a fascinating powershift going on in Dorothea Röschmann's recital of Schubert, Fauré and Brahms. It's always nice to see a singer actually listening to her accompanist but I've never seen one quite so deferential. Certainly Graham Johnson has been "Mr Lieder" for so long now that it's natural for a young soprano to be eager to please. But Johnson seemed to be trotting out the same smooth interpretations he's been performing with Felicity Lott et al for years, and his softly-softly accompaniment didn't quite gel with Röschmann's more eager approach. As the programme went on, she visibly grew more confident; her shoulders relaxed, her face became more mobile and she started to set her own pace. It took a while for her to get into gear but once she had, the sound was enthralling - the kind of sound where you start playing fantasy opera with Röschmann as Sophie or Michaela or Poppea. She's going to go very, very far but I suspect she might do better with a more like-minded pianist.

I wondered whether many people would be able to drag themselves from their post-roast stupor for the Gabrieli Consort's Easter Sunday programme at the Barbican but the stalls and circle were full almost to capacity. The modish layout was easy on the eye, with harpsichord, organ, cellos and bass in a row at the back, but this led to a rather disconnected sound in the faster choral passages - of which there were fewer than McCreesh's reputation as speed-meister might have led one to expect. It was brisk, but not breathless, Bach; the opening sinfonia was a marvel of easy graceful tempo and the strings have never sounded better. In the singers, the ability to pull off the double act of solo and consort was strongest in the basses and gradually less convincing rising through the vocal parts. Still, Kimberly McCord's langourous solo was more than adequate compensation for her less than incisive consort singing. Capped off by some sparkling trumpet playing, it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and an effective antidote to the doom and gloom of a musically leaden Passiontide.

'The Greek Passion': Royal Opera House, WC2 (020 7304 4000) to 8 May