Bohuslav Martino’s latest opera, Greek Passion, explores a story that was just as explosive in the mid-20th century as it is today. When a group of refugees seek protection in the village of Lykovrisi, the community plunges into turmoil: will the villagers reaffirm their Christian virtues or indulge in acts of selfishness?
this Aug. 13-27The opera will be presented for the first time at the Salzburg Festival in a production directed by Simon Stone. Maxim Pascalwinner of the 2014 Annual Young Conductors Prize for Summer Event, conducts – the first opera staged entirely here – at the Felsenreitschule.
The festival has presented Martino’s work occasionally since 1950, giving the world premiere of his orchestral piece “Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca” in 1956. Recent releases have seen mostly chamber music.
“Greek Passion” It resonated personally with Martino, who was always homesick in his later years. He was born in 1890 in Polica – a town located on Bohemia Over the Borders of Moravia (in the modern Czech Republic) – He reached maturity as a composer in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1941, as a member of the French Resistance, he fled the Nazis to the United States. Martineau died in Switzerland in 1959, unable to return to his country of origin for political reasons.
After a long search for a tragic theme that he could personally adapt into a script, he discovered the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis and gained approval to adapt his book The Recurring Messiah.
The composer wrote to the Guggenheim Foundation in 1956: “I now feel ready for another step, the most difficult and the most responsible, a musical tragedy.”
Martino collaborated closely with Kazantzakis while working on the novel, in an English translation by Jonathan Griffin. The original conflict, which involved Turkish rule, was narrowed down so that the confrontation at Lycophoris (a town north of Athens) involved only the Greeks.
The story line, as such, was of particular interest to the author in the context of Cold War politics that pitted people of the same nation against each other, Alice Brezina, director of the Bohuslav Martino Institute, explained. Having received American citizenship, Martino was considered a traitor in his homeland. In the United States, he had to deal with the repercussions of being a Czech citizen during the anti-communism McCarthy era.
“In the context of a bipolar world where everything was questionable,” said Mr. Brezina, “Martino was touched by the theme of what people were capable of doing to their fellow countrymen.”
Monsieur Pascal, the conductor of the orchestra, also emphasized the centrality of this dynamism in the work. He said, “A group of Greeks came to a Greek village, and started chasing them away.” “This reveals the ferocity of an angry mob against another human being and humanity itself.”
The piece features two choirs—one representing the people of Lycovrissi, the other, refugees—a structure that follows a long tradition of musical settings for the Passion, or the story of the Crucifixion, as told in the Gospels of the Bible. In “Greek Passion,” art becomes life as the villagers reenact the play of passion. The shepherd Manolios, who portrays Christ, is eventually killed after he challenges his fellow villagers about the authenticity of their values.
Mr. Pascal pointed out that Kazantzakis was considered a heretic for reinterpreting the doctrines of the faith as transmitted by the Church. “He saw a revolutionary figure in the image of Christ,” he said, “but most of all he saw in the mystery of Christianity something akin to a myth or legend.”
Martineau left behind two very different versions of “The Greek Passion” due to an unusual turn of events. He chose the Royal Opera in London as the location for the premiere, although there was also interest from the Vienna State Opera, the Salzburg Festival and La Scala in Milan.
However, the opera was eventually rejected by the theatre’s board of directors’ external advisors. Musicologist and conductor Anthony Lewis has argued that some works by native Czechs Smetana and Janacek were not yet heard in London, and that the house needed the support of contemporary English composers.
Despite the continued support of the Royal Opera’s music director, Czech-born Rafael Kubelek, the board will not reverse its decision. Martineau, for his part, believes that the war for independence is on Cyprus – which was affecting diplomatic relations between Britain and Greece – may have distorted the subject.
He revised and tightened the score for the Zurich Opera, where it premiered in June 1961, after Martineau’s death, under the baton of his friend and patron Paul Sacher. The original version, which was intended for a London premiere, did not hit the stage until 1999 at the Bregenz Festival in Austria.
Mr. Brezina, who reconstructed the score for this production, compared the original to a “dramatic fresco” or “a mosaic in which individual scenes and appearances are pitted against one another”. In contrast, the Zurich version to be performed in Salzburg is like “a kind of oratorio with fine melodies and choral scenes”.
Martinu’s mature work achieves an unprecedented synthesis of Czech and French elements, combining bohemian and Moravian rhythms with influences of composers such as Stravinsky and Debussy. His “Greek Passion”.“,” However, he is notable in that he has carefully absorbed Greek Orthodox music, only occasionally hinting at his Czech roots. In 1955, Martino traveled to New York to meet friends of Kazantzakis and learn about Greek folk music and religious rituals.
Mr. Brezina explained that Martino was keen to portray simple people while moving away from the “farmer’s music” that can be found in the work of Janacek, who was the first composer to adapt Moravian speech patterns and melodies to the opera stage. “In Kazantzakis he found an exceptional intelligence, but also a down-to-earth person,” he said. “All the characters in The Greek Passion are almost uneducated. They act instinctively.”
Mr. Pascal noted that the population displacements in Greece mirrored developments in Martineau’s native Czechoslovakia. “The oral songs and dances that migrated from one region to another must have spoken to him greatly,” he said.
The conductor also noted the strong impressionistic character of the score. “There’s incredible violence,” he said, “but at the same time everything seems bathed in sunlight.”
Mr. Pascal also pondered the superimposition of time periods that could be typical of the composer’s final statement: “Post-war period, Christ period, Greece: there is a continuity between past and present that is dizzy.
This is also found in Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” – where Chinese texts branch off from the eighth century with a text written by the composer himself – or Gerard Grisi’s “Quatre hymns pour franchir le seuil”.
Although it is rarely performed, the “Greek Passion” It is considered Martino’s greatest operatic achievement, along with his surrealist masterpiece “Juliet” of 1938. “It is the pinnacle of his work on the self-proclaimed stage,” said Mr. Brezina.