Salzburg Festival 2023 Review: The Greek Passion

By João Marcos Copertino
(Photo: SF/Monika Rittershaus)

Bohuslav Martinů’s opera “The Greek Passion” is a work still in search of its audience. The opera, seldom performed, is considered to be one of Martinů’s finest compositions. This season’s Salzburg Festival tried hard to make “The Greek Passion” a rare and visually noteworthy production. But it didn’t quite work out. The opera’s political radicalness and musical accomplishments are sufficiently underdeveloped, making “The Greek Passion” merely an entertaining night.

After seeing more than a few theatrical productions directed by Simon Stone, I came up with a personal theory of his work. Stone is visually oriented, and more often than not, he makes beautiful mise-en-scène.

However, he is not very good with text. In theater, his adaptation of “Phaedra” unlearned all the achievements of Euripides, Seneca, and Racine. It also had a naïve, practically offensive, perspective of immigration, politics, and sexual desire. And, of course, one can’t forget the whole Goya bean controversy in his “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Met. He often means well, but the result is frustrating.

His take on “The Greek Passion” is no different.

Art As Entertainment

Stone brings the opera’s refugees into question at the center of this production, as he should. The staging is beautiful and sometimes monumental. It even has a real waterfall. But, the dramaturgy is as weak as it gets. Allusions to Christian hypocrisy surrounding refugees are downsized as much as possible. The violent moments, so important to the libretto, are compressed in the final act. It seems that Stone is willing to acknowledge this serious social issue afflicting not only Europe, but the whole western world today. Beyond this, however, he is incapable of saying anything more meaningful than “xenophobia is bad.”

It is a palatable approach to the immigration crisis—as if he sought to attract a bigger audience by pursuing a deliberately anodyne approach. However, the problem is that the Felsenreitschule has the same seating capacity regardless of what is playing. Stone made opera entertainment, not art.

I kept finding myself recalling Calixto Bieito’s staging of “Carmen,” which also claimed to deal with borders and xenophobia. Although Bieito’s staging has faced its share of controversy, it never denied how widespread and complicated violence is in such affairs. Martinů’s libretto also offers many opportunities for similar—perhaps even deeper—debates about immigration. At the end of the opera, there is even an allusion to how social exclusion leads to violence. In the face of the chances offered by the opera itself, Stone decided to avoid conflict as much as possible. It was palatable to many, but only as intellectually nutritive as a Big Mac.

Musical Highlights & Lowlights

Maxime Pascal’s musical direction—in his operatic debut—was a good surprise. The conductor controlled the powerful sound of the Vienna Philharmonic, never overshadowing the singers’ voices, and showed a reading respectful to the happenings on stage. Moreover, there was a careful attention to the soloists’ moments in the opera. He gave the players freedom to find original sounds for their solos.

Another good surprise was the work of the choir. The Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus—their name is as big as it gets—is subdivided into two groups (locals and refugees). It thrives in the difficult movements of the score, especially when singing off-stage and sustaining good intonation during big dramatic movements. The most moving musical moments of the night were the Greek’s “Kyrie,” sang by the Concert Association.

The main musical weakness of this production, however, is the incompatibility between the vocalists’ talents and Martinů’s musical demands. It is not that the cast was bad, rather, few singers had instruments that sounded beautiful when singing Martinů’s music and text.

There was also a widespread difficulty when singing in English. It is not in itself a problem that most of the cast spoke in accented English. In fact, most of the time, the text was perfectly understandable. I only had to raise my eyes and read the supertitles three times in two hours! The problem is that the singers could not overcome their accent difficulties and therefore make better musical lines—even when it was evident that Martinů gave them opportunity to do so.

The Singer’s Role

Gábor Bretz, singing the role of the ominous Priest Grigoris, might have epitomized such difficulty. The singer clearly has a good voice and a well-established career, especially in Budapest. His instrument is full and sonorous, but he sang his role without any gravitas. The excommunication scene in the fourth act was bland and without any compelling psychology. His actions expressed neither wickedness nor good intentions. It was easy to be indifferent to a figure who, otherwise, could have been the guy we love to hate.

Łukasz Goliński sings a significantly more dramatic priest. Although dressed as an anti-fashionista refugee, Goliński has a voice and a sense of phrasing that inspires more respect in the audience than Bretz’s impassioned priest. The issue was the strength of his tone overshadowed possibilities for more nuanced phrasing. His voice sounded solid all night, but his sense of phrasing was monolithic.

Sebastian Kohlhepp undertakes the difficult task of portraying a man who progressively is made to believe he is Jesus Christ on earth. Kohlhepp sings Manolios as a sort of “Narraboth voice”—naïve and deluded. He pays with his life for his ingenuity. Although the approach seems correct, given the staging, it deprived the character of any messianic power. He was more pitiful than inspirational. The tenor has a lyric tone that loses much of its expressivity and color in orchestral pieces. Nevertheless, his voice carries well in the hall. It just loses some of the art sensibility that one can hear in his newest sympathetic Lieder Album, “Of legends and heroes,” with Andreas Frese.

American soprano Sara Jakubiak‘s singing and musical phrasing in English was excellent. However, her level of stage experience presents similar challenges. For example, she has performed Korngold and Britten and her instrument is very idiosyncratic, but I am under the impression that much of her voices nuances are lost in recordings. Her voice is capable of expressing emotions and text together in a way that is musical without necessarily being beautiful. She may be the perfect choice for a character who aims to be Mary Magdalene.

Charles Workman sings Yannakos with simplicity. He is inherently connected to the character’s emotions. His scene in the second act, especially, carried true sentiment and he properly contained the metallic tone of his voice. There was something of St. Peter in him, with a certain potential for brutality, but still choosing to do the right thing. I must say that, still, his character had a more simple psychology than I would have liked.

Christina Gansch sings one of the most savorless characters that I have ever seen in any opera, the idiotic Lenio. It is to the soprano’s credit that she did a fine job in the opera’s final scene. Beyond that, it was not great to see. It might be a question of bad casting, but Lenio’s music made Gansch’s instrument sound more tired and less youthful than her character might demand—losing much of the focus and beauty of tone.

Alejandro Baliñas Vieites has shown great improvement this season. I have seen a lot of Alejandro Baliñas Vieites this season, and I can say that the bass-baritone has never sounded better. Though musically there is still room for improvement, it is noticeable that his instrument has finally found a repertoire better suited to the dark color of his voice, bringing out its natural tendency in the low notes without making it sound cadaverous.

More Surprising Moments

I was particularly surprised by the beauty of tone and quality of intonation of contralto Helena Rasker. Although she sang a small role, it was the first time during the whole night that I heard a voice that could unite unquestionable beauty of tone with careful attention to musical phrasing and legato. Singers like Helena Rasker often offer small moments of relief, especially when the opera is two hours long and with no break.

The rest of the cast sang a series of roles that, in Stone’s arrangement, sounded a bit peripheral to the center of the dramatic action. Matteo Ivan Rašić, Matthäus Schmidlechner, Julian Hubbard, Aljoscha Lennert, Luke Stoker, Robert Dölle, Scott Wilde, and Teona Todua sang their parts with efficiency, but did not have any moment in which to shine. With such a big ensemble cast, it is normal for that to happen. I cannot avoid saying that were the cast given the same attentive reading that Pascal gave the orchestra, or had the cast been asked to be more than merely efficient, and sought to make each phrase distinct, the show could have been exponentially better.

Martinů’s “The Greek Passion” is an interesting surprise, especially given how infrequently the opera is performed. The operagoer will find a more congenial Vienna Philharmonic than usual and a very good choir. The cast, filled with hard-working singers is, on average, less star-filled than most performances at the Salzburg festival—and one can hear it.

Nevertheless, “The Greek Passion” seems to have been to the Salzburgians’ taste. I suspect this is due in part to the simplistic and non-controversial take on the opera by Stone, and the overall quality of the musical reading (all the voices can be heard—which is a lot lately). However, I left the opera house with a clear sensation that I had just seen a show that was good enough to make me wish it were better.


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