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Greek Passion
(original version)
Bregenz Festival production
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Ulf Schirmer with Moscow Chamber Choir, Bregenz Children's Choir & soloists including Christopher Ventris, Nina Stemme, John Daszak, Esa Ruuttunen & Egils Silins.
Koch 3-6590-2 [131 mins]

This original version of Martinu's opera, based upon the Kazantzakis novel Christ Recrucified, belatedly produced at Bregenz and then at Covent Garden conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras at long last (reviewed there by Seen&Heard April 2000) has arrived for consideration in the same week as did Birtwistle's The Last Supper, which deals with iniquities through the ages committed in the name of Christianity (Glyndbourne Touring Opera).

Mackerras's recording of the revised version, with singers of the Welsh National Opera and the Brno SPO, was previously reviewed , and these two links will give you a full account of the chequered history of an opera, composed in English for Covent Garden, which took so long to reach that destination. Why it was shelved is rehearsed also in the 120 page booklet with this release, explaining how Rafael Kubelik's enthusiasm was thwarted by the Opera House Board.

It is now generally agreed that the 'London version' - characterised by abrupt changes of style, tonality to atonality, contrasting emotions juxtaposed in rapid succession, with spoken words to arioso, solo instruments to full orchestra, more a cinematic concept than a normal opera - is superior to the 'Zurich version' revision. The chorus, divided between local inhabitants and unwelcome refugees, is the real protagonist and most of the leading solo roles are relatively small in length, but the shepherd-Christ figure Manolios (Christopher Ventris) is drawn three dimensionally as an essential part of the whole Passion story, with its clear contemporary resonances. The opera proceeds to its inevitable tragic denouement at pace. As Katerina, the Mary Magdalene figure, Nina Stemme is particularly affecting.

This recording has the small disadvantage against the other that the cast is not one of native English speakers, but their diction and the clarity of the text (which is printed in full also) does all credit to the preparation of this live performance, taken from the Bregenz Festival in June 1999. Ulf Schirmer steers his forces, with its numerous cast of mostly fairly unfamiliar singers, admirably, and the recording quality is good, with the orchestra well forward, which I like better than the opposite.

I have no hesitation in preferring the far more original first conception and it is good that Greek Passion, which meant so much to its composer, is now becoming well known and established in the repertoire. Both recordings are highly desirable and purchasers of the two will have no regrets for taking the opportunity to compare the very different versions and to explore in depth for themselves a fascinating and important saga in operatic history.

The Covent Garden production was staged so spectacularly and successfully that it must be revived there!

Peter Grahame Woolf

Reviews from previous months

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