With support of the Association of Friends of the Salzburg Festival, Bad Reichenhall
‘Why do you sit here with your arms folded, resting?’
‘Christ is risen!’ The inhabitants of a Greek village are celebrating Easter. United in their faith, they are told by their priest Grigoris which of them has been chosen to act in next year’s Passion play. Not long after, however, a rift will divide the community. An unforeseen event causes the Christian values of these people to descend to the level of mere lip service — or to become the true impetus for their actions. A group of refugees, fleeing from their plundered homes, asks the prosperous village for protection and land that they can cultivate. Grigoris is unwelcoming; when a young girl collapses from weakness and dies, he deliberately attributes her death to cholera, uniting the horrified villagers against the strangers — with the exception of those assigned parts in the Passion play. They start to feel a sense of injustice, compassion and readiness to help, just as if their forthcoming roles had consequences in the here and now. In identifying with their roles, their own identities are transformed, especially so in the case of the shepherd Manolios, who was chosen to play Jesus. He invites the refugees to settle on a nearby mountain. From then on, the events in Bohuslav Martinů’s The Greek Passion develop their own, tragic dynamics. The more Manolios is inspired by Christ in his actions, the more followers he assembles around him, and the more determined he is to side with the refugees, the more relentlessly he is resisted by the individuals who wield power in the village — until the fatal act anticipated in the title of the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis on which the opera is based takes place: Christ Recrucified.
The fact that Manolios’s greatest adversary is the village priest shows how hostile Kazantzakis was towards a church enmeshed in secular power structures. Grigoris is the mouthpiece of a static, materially saturated society that perceives Manolios as jeopardizing the status quo: ‘He is shaking the foundations of society.’ The refugees are seen as posing a similar threat: men and women of the same nation and culture — yet ‘alien’ because they have lost everything and thus perhaps now see basic things such as social order in a new and different light? It is as if the very presence of these propertyless people, spurred on by their priest Fotis to endure to the last, is a provocation for the property-owning villagers, a reason for fear and insecurity.
‘Those who stride with high faith toward love of all men find their way blocked by those who refuse to give up selfishness’, is how Martinů summed up the essence of the plot. The Greek Passion is a pessimistic plea for humanity, proffered in the awareness that humankind is engaged in a constant battle with its own egoism. While the biblical parallel gives a mythical dimension to the story, Martinů tells it without pointing the moral finger or exaggerated pathos. This is due on the one hand to his operatic aesthetics that saw the function of music less in the emphatic expression of words and emotions than in the capturing of the general mood of a situation or scene; Martinů described the revised version that he composed for the Zurich Opera from 1957 to 1959 following the cancellation of the London premiere as ‘dramatic lyricism’. On the other hand, the opera avoids one-dimensionally stylizing the shepherd as a saint. Like Jesus in Kazantzakis’s controversial novel The Last Temptation, Manolios is subject to temptations and inner conflicts.
The position he is eventually driven to assume is as radical as it is ambivalent. Faced with children dying of starvation, he calls on the refugees to resist physically: ‘In this world of ours can anything be done without blood being shed? Let us set fire to it, that the Earth may purify itself.’ Violence as the very last but legitimate means to creating a more just world? A charged question that every director of this opera must confront. Following his impressive productions of Reimann’s Lear and Cherubini’s Médée, Simon Stone returns to the Salzburg Festival for The Greek Passion.
Translation: Sophie Kidd