A new "Passion" unveiled at National Theatre

'La Passion grecque'

Many are familiar with the work of one of the greatest Czech composers, Bohuslav Martinu. Martinu wrote a number of operas in a career that spanned more than half a century. But he wrote only one tragic opera, "The Greek Passion." A new translation of "The Greek Passion" premiered at Prague's historic National Theatre on Thursday night, just in time for Easter.

Hypocrisy, infidelity, betrayal, and the faith to overcome: These are the key elements of "The Greek Passion," the final opera Bohuslav Martinu wrote before his death in 1959.

Like many great Czech artists of the 20th Century, Martinu fled Europe for America during the Second World War, so his later works are in English.

Mr. Ales Brezina, Director of the Martinu Institute in Prague, spent more than a year translating "The Greek Passion" from English into Czech.

"The National Theatre, the chief of the opera house, decided to do it in Czech because the older Czech audience is not that good in English. The younger Czech audience, which would be better in English, is not the majority of opera-goers."

The story is an allegory about the abuse of power.

It's set in a small Greek village that puts on a play about the death of Jesus Christ for its Easter celebration. When the young actors start living their Biblical roles and questioning the authority of village elders, they're banished. Eventually the village kills Manolios, the shepherd cast as Jesus.

"The Greek Passion" made its first Czech appearance in Brno in 1962 - but was quite different then. Ms. Eva Bezdekova translated the piece under the communist regime, so she had to dilute the opera's religious tone, according to Mr. Brezina.

"She changed the libretto from a Christian love to the battle of class enemies. It became a part of, let's say, social-realist culture of the '60s. She was harshly criticized for this translation even from the very beginning, from the 1960s."

Despite the changes, The Greek Passion brought in large audiences for years. The opera was a safe form of spiritual protest when religion was discouraged by the state, Mr. Brezina says.

"Before the end of communist era here, this theatre piece, this opera, was a substitute for the church. So it was a hugely popular piece. The last production at the theatre ran from 1984 to 1990."

"The Greek Passion" had some 64 performances in Prague during that time.

Today's version, translated directly from Martinu's handwritten originals, is true to the opera's religious context, Mr. Brezina says. But he wonders whether the show will appeal to today's audience.

"These days, when the church is functioning again, when everyone can go to each church, each religion of his own decision, I wonder if it will be as successful as it was in the '80s. Because I think in the 80s it was successful not only because it's wonderful music and a great libretto, but also because of this other level."

Mr. Martinu himself was a spiritual man but did not practice any religion. "The Greek Passion" is based on Nikos Kazantzakis's book Christ Recrucified.

The premiere comes just before Good Friday, when Christians observe the death of Jesus.