Greek Passion at the Salzburg Festival

One of the most prestigious festivals of opera, music, and drama in the world, the Salzburger Festspiele, will stage the opera The Greek Passion (second version) by Bohuslav Martinů from August 13th to 27th. This production was created under the directorial leadership of Simon Stone and conducted by Maxime Pascal.

More information here.

The opera Greek Passion, H 372 II, by Bohuslav Martinů stands among the most profound intellectual works of the composer, delving into the serious theme of refugees in a hostile foreign environment. The libretto draws from the literary narrative of Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis' "Christ Recrucified" from 1951. Martinů drew inspiration from motifs within this novel, crafting an exceptionally impactful opera with a deep humanistic message. The libretto was composed by the skilful hand of Martinů himself, adhering to Kazantzakis' novel, and the original vocal lines are in English.


The opera "Greek Passion" held a special personal significance for Martinů, as he himself experienced the plight of a refugee, and especially in his later years, he was increasingly haunted by homesickness. Due to the political circumstances of the time, Martinů was considered a traitor in his homeland and lived in exile. Although he obtained American citizenship, the McCarthy era in the USA, during which Czechs were seen as a communist threat, placed him in a challenging position. In his opera, he touched upon a sensitive theme that was pertinent during the Cold War – the clash of two nations.

Greek Passion, Moravské divadlo Olomouc

The story of the opera draws inspiration from religious folk plays. It takes place in a Greek village, Lycovrissi, in the first decades of the 20th century. The local priest, Grigoris, convenes a gathering of villagers to select participants for the Passion plays, in which the main character, the shepherd Manolios, is chosen to portray Jesus Christ. As the villagers prepare for this event, refugees suddenly appear, seeking asylum. This unexpected occurrence disrupts the village's peaceful life and raises questions of faith and solidarity.

Manolios' efforts to help the refugees, who were expelled by the Turks and find themselves in distress, gradually entangle him in a conflict with the greedy priest Grigorios. Grigorios incites a part of the village against Manolios. Despite Manolios' honorable and compassionate intentions, he becomes the target of hatred from xenophobic fellow villagers and is eventually killed. The opera immerses us in a world of spiritual exploration and moral trials. Through emotive musical expressions and symbolism, the story unfolds, depicting inner growth, conscience, and the conflict between faith and human frailties.

The score of "Greek passion" includes two choruses - one representing the inhabitants of Lycovrissi and the other the refugees. These two choruses play a significant role as musical and dramatic elements. The Village Chorus embodies a traditional and conservative view of the world. Their singing and harmonies reflect the collective mindset of the community and the contemporary environment. The chorus conveys feelings of unity, fear, or enthusiasm shared by the villagers, creating an impression of a close-knit society.

Conversely, the Refugee Chorus introduces contrast and tension. Their singing expresses suffering, a longing for a safe haven, and a better future. This chorus symbolizes a distinct perspective on the world compared to that of the villagers, adding depth and complexity to the musical expression. It represents the voice of people who find themselves in need and seek help and compassion in an unfamiliar and hostile environment.

"Pocta Bohuslavu Martinů - Řecké pašije" Miroslav Rada

The opera "Greek Passion" by Bohuslav Martinů exists in two versions, which significantly differ in their structure and character. These versions were created in an effort to refine and adapt the work to dramatic and musical needs. The first version of the opera has an interesting history intertwined with the composer's life and the political context of the time. Martinů worked on it from 1957 to 1959 during his stay in the USA. This period was marked by the Cold War and political tensions, which also influenced his creative process. Despite being a U.S. citizen during this era, Martinů still felt a strong connection to his homeland and was sensitive to pressing global events.

Compared to its later revision, the first version of the opera was more compact, had a more experimental musical character, and reflected Martinů's personal style more prominently. Although its premiere was arranged with London's Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 1958 under the direction of renowned conductor Rafael Kubelík, it faced an unexpected rejection, even with the intervention of a Czech conductor.

However, the London opera's rejection did not deter Martinů. He immediately embarked on an intensive reworking of this version. The second version was completed in early 1959, with only a few months of the composer's life remaining. In contrast to the first version, it features a more conventional and compact structure. Its premiere took place thanks to the efforts and support of the composer's friend, P. Sacher, in Zurich in 1961. Unfortunately, Bohuslav Martinů did not live to see it.

Fortunately, both versions of the opera eventually received their debut on the opera stage. Thanks to the composer and musicologist Aleš Březina, a daring reconstruction of the score of the first version was carried out in 1998 and premiered at the prestigious Bregenzer Festspiele festival in Austria, in cooperation with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. This finally fulfilled the original desire of Bohuslav Martinů and Rafael Kubelík to present the first version of the opera on the world opera scene. Aleš Březina, who is intimately familiar with both versions, likened the original version to "dramatic frescoes" or a "mosaic where individual scenes and entries interact." On the other hand, he described the second, so-called Zurich version, which will be performed in Salzburg, as "a kind of oratorio with amazing melodies and choral scenes."


"Greek Passion" at the Salzburg Festival

In a matter of days, the highly anticipated production of Bohuslav Martinů's opera "The Greek Passion" will have its premiere at the Salzburg Festival. This opera places at its forefront a timely theme and poses a timeless question: How will the local inhabitants react as a group of refugees seeks refuge within a new community?

From August 13th to 27th, 2023, the opera will be presented for the first time at the Salzburg Festival in a production directed by Simon Stone. The principal conductor will be Maxime Pascal, the recipient of the 2014 Young Conductors Award presented at the Salzburg Festival, marking his first fully staged opera at the Felsenreitschule venue. The Salzburg Festival has been showcasing the works of Bohuslav Martinů since 1950, including the world premiere of his orchestral composition "The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca" in 1956. The premiere of the opera "The Greek Passion" at the Salzburg Festival promises to be not only a musical experience but also a significant artistic contribution to current societal debates.

More information here.