Out of the archives and onto the stage: Martinu's 'Greek Passion' revived

'Greek Passion', photo: Ludek Svitil, www.nbrno.cz

In Brno's National Theatre last week 'the halls were alive' with the sound of Britain's Royal Opera. Under the direction of David Pountney, and the baton of Christian von Gehren, members of the Royal Opera were in the Czech Republic's second city to perform the lesser-known first version of Bohuslav Martinu's 'Greek Passion'. Some 48 years after its completion, this was its Czech premiere. Rosie Johnston explains exactly what took so long...

Martinu wrote his first version of 'the Greek Passion' in 1957, based upon the book by Nikos Kazantzakis of the same name. It was termed the 'London' version of the opera, as it was first offered to the Royal Opera house, Covent Garden. The opera house turned it down, for reasons that conductor, Christian von Gehren explains:

"I think maybe this very conservative opera house was not ready for a new language of operatic writing, because this first version, this London version is in a way much more radical in its writing than the second version, which uses bigger chorus scenes, which uses a more classical way of writing, whereas this first version we're playing here uses a lot of spoken words, uses a lot of percussion, which is used in a very modern way, so I think it was probably due to the fact that they were a bit too conservative at that time"

After a second rejection, Martinu gave in and composed a more classical, second version of the opera - for performance in Zurich. He retained only around thirty percent of the original opera. The rest he gave away. Ales Brezina reassembled the 'London' version of the opera six years ago. He outlines what became of the lost first version:

"The first version partially went into the second version, and you can easily recognize it when looking at the top of these pages, they have two page numbers: one from the first and one from the second version. The other seventy percent Martinu gave to friends as a present. Some of the pages were left in the archives of Universal Editions in Vienna, and a lot of the material is now in the Paul Sacher foundation in Basel."

After all of the trials and tribulations of its reconstruction, the first version of the 'Greek Passion' had its Czech premier two weeks ago in Brno. The Czech audiences reacted well to Stafanos Lazaridis' unusual swiveling set, and the top-notch singing from stars of the Royal Opera. Nicholas Buxton, who played Andonis in the production, describes the audience's response:

"Well, it's obviously so hugely popular, and obviously the fact that it is a Czechoslovakian opera in the Czech republic... it got a fantastic reception, a standing ovation on both nights."

So, this first version of the 'Greek Passion' may have been a long time in the making, but it appears that what they say is true: good things do come to those who wait.