Theatre: The breath of God rolled out across the stage

Martinu: The Greek Passion Barbican Hall, London
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Of his 14 operas, none cost Martinu as much effort as his last. A prolific composer of some 400 scores, used to tossing off an opera in a year or less, he spent the last five years of his life recasting Nikos Kazantzakis's epic novel, Christ Recrucified, for the stage, rewriting a finished first version in order to cut down on the text and honour the Cretan author's own advice to "put the music first".

It was worth it. Set in Anatolia just after the First World War, this tale of a comfortable Greek community polarised into confronting the tenets of its faith by the arrival of a group of fellow Greek refugees, fleeing Turkish reprisals, had clear resonances for the Czech composer, himself a longterm exile. And, in his depiction of the gentle growth of faith among a few simple villagers who, cast as the principal players in the next year's Passion Play, slowly assume the mantle of their biblical counterparts - to a point at which Manolios, the shepherd cast as Christ, eventually leads the have-nots in an all-out assault on the haves, only to die at the hands of the red-bearded Judas - Martinu created a work of a rare spiritual power.

First seen in Zurich in 1961, two years after Martinu's death, the work was given its British premiere (and first recording) by WNO in 1981. Next century, it will be staged at the new Royal Opera House. The BBCSO's Barbican performance on Saturday afternoon (broadcast tonight on Radio 3) was a useful stopgap.

It's not an ideal work for concert presentation: so many of the spatial effects on which the drama depends - off-stage choruses, mountain echoes, simultaneous foreground and background action - went for nothing on the Barbican's congested stage (and having the chorus sing with their faces in their copies may simulate distance but it doesn't lend enchantment).

Without being able to experience the force of Martinu's writing for antiphonal choruses (villagers versus refugees), the final cathartic moment of unison over Manolios's corpse went for nothing, while some of the vocal doublings (Jozik Koc as both the avaricious Ladas and the saintly Yannakos, Alasdair Elliott as both the murderous Panais and the innocent Andonis) were surely confusing for listeners in the hall, with only an inadequate synopsis instead of a full libretto, and seemed unduly parsimonious.

All that said, this was a musically powerful performance, adroitly cast. Outstanding were Clive Bayley and Mark Beesley as the rival priests; Timothy Robinson, sweetly mellifluous as Yannakos, the donkey-besotted pedlar whose rendition of "Christ's Parable of the Sower" provides a recurrent motif; and David Rendall, by turns inspired and inspiring as Manolios, aptly febrile in the Tristan-esque torments of his waking dreams, rising to heroic heights in his final, fatal confession. However, as Katerina, the village whore (or "young widow", as the programme coyly put it), Susan Chilcott was, if anything, too richly, too securely voiced - perfect for the post-conversion Magdalene who sings Manolios's epitaph but lacking the erotic power to goad Panais on to murder (her principal boy outfit hardly helped).

On the podium, Jiri Belohlavek was master of all Martinu's many-coloured moods, urging the BBCSO on through those characteristically buoyant ostinatos, whipping up the wild, almost feral folk dances of the final wedding scene, bathing the text in ethereal orchestral haloes or, in the almost Berliozian evocation of a warm Mediterranean dusk that precedes the final cataclysm, breathing out the very breath of God across the still night air. Roll on, Covent Garden's new staging.