The Greek Passion, Royal Opera House, London

Heaven and earth show
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The Independent Culture

If you've not seen it before, the opening of David Pountney's Olivier award-winning prod- uction is both an eyeful and an earful. As the curtain rises on Stefanos Lazaridis's set, your eyes are drawn heavenward. The sheer height of it is breathtaking. A vast wooden structure fashioned into a system of platforms and walkways reaches up, up and away into the flies of the Royal Opera House stage. Topmost, at its centre, is a great set of golden bells. The entire company chants: "Christ is risen." The bells chime; the paean swells. The scent of incense is overwhelming. Now this, you think to yourself, is opera.

Well, yes and no. Because Martinu's The Greek Passion (adapted from a Greek novel, Christ Recrucified, and written to an English libretto by the composer himself) might more accurately be described as "operatic". In its original version, given here, the mix of spoken and sung text, of song and arioso, of orchestral underscoring and ethnic instrumentation, formal and folksy by turns, makes it more pageant than opera. Which is where it first ran into trouble. In an attempt to appease the operatic powers that be and get his opera accepted internationally, Martinu made a more conventional second version, an all-singing affair. But the spirit of it resides in this first version. This is the "people's opera", clear, simple, direct, unadorned and very moving.

There is something decidedly filmic about the way The Greek Passion works. The way scenes run on or jump-cut into one another; the way speech pulls focus like a sudden close-up; the way the underscoring works; the way the lofty is juxtaposed with the lowly. Pountney makes capital of it all. And I cannot emphasise enough just how vital the Lazaridis design is in enabling him to do so. Visually, it works on so many levels. Literally. The overriding sense is of a community, a village clinging to a mountainside. The vertiginous structure conveys that. The platforms become individual dwellings within that village. The raw wood conveys both rusticity and the omni-presence of the cross.

Because The Greek Passion is precisely what it says on the score. Or, to be even more precise, a passion play within a passion play. As the Greek villagers prepare to act out the Easter story, they grow so much into the characters they are portraying that they in effect become them. And for the elders who cast them in the first place, that's a reality too far. Especially when the arrival of dispossessed asylum-seekers threatens to divide the community. Sounding familiar?

The power of this piece is in the ensemble, and the Royal Opera ensemble is superb. Chorus and principals are almost indivisible. It really is a company show, but individuals shine. Christopher Ventris in the Manolios/Christ role has to and does; Timothy Robinson brings a ringing endorsement to Yannakos/Peter; Willard W White's natural authority finds renewed fervour as the refugees' priest, Fotis; and Peter Sidhom is chilling as his darker counterpart, the priest Grigoris. Then there is Marie McLaughlin, who projects strength, compassion and womanly allure as Katerina/Mary Magdalen.

Charles Mackerras, the Czechs' champion supreme, had the Royal Opera Orchestra immersing itself in Martinu's fantastical, whirring textures. Kithara and accordion lent a bittersweet tang to the street music; lush, biblical, movie- like themes underpinned the lofty orthodoxy.

In the final scene, the joy of Christmas (starry lights in the sky) is devastatingly countered with the misery of the bleak midwinter (a heavy snowfall). As the asylum-seekers file out through the auditorium on their endless quest for Christian charity, the phrase "peace on earth to men of goodwill" seems strangely hollow. We shift uneasily in our seats. We call it interactive theatre. You should, you must, try it.

To 1 October (020-7304 4000)