On the open stage of the Bregenz Festspielhaus, the audience is confronted with a series of suspended rectangular panels. With small squares to suggest windows, they are obviously house facades. These fly slowly in groups to reveal an impressive raw wood construction of heavy squared vertical beams, supporting a series of ramps and stairs and eight square platforms.
"The platforms represent the stations of the cross," says designer Stefanos Lazaridis. Actually, there are 14 stations in Catholic and Orthodox devotions, but eight proved just right for staging the almost cinematic scenes of Bohuslav Martinu's Greek Passion.
This July in Bregenz, Martinu's opera--composed with his own English libretto--finally had its world premiere, after more than 40 years of oblivion. It was originally created for the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, which rejected it "on artistic grounds." In despair, Martinu scattered pages of his manuscript among friends as souvenirs.
Fortunately, it has been possible to recover them and reconstitute the work. And, after its tremendous success in Bregenz, it was presented at Covent Garden in December, joining the repertory of the newly reopened opera house. This is a co-production of Covent Garden and the Bregenz Festival, which produces a neglected or forgotten opera every summer on its indoor stage [Its lake stage featured a new mounting of Verdi's A Masked Ball; see ED November 99]. Director David Pountney and designer Stefanos Lazaridis have already made their mark on the Lake Constance stage with monumental productions of Nabucco, The Flying Dutchman, and Fidelio.
Jules Dassin made a classic film of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel, so it's especially interesting how Martinu developed the drama in virtually filmic sequences, with an eclectic musical score which heightens the power of each scene rather like cinema background music. Pountney and Lazaridis' scenic solution keeps the drama in constant motion, with scenes acted on many levels and inclines, without breaks for scene changes. With ramps rising to the proscenium portal, performers are deployed in cubic space, not just lined up onstage.
The novel, the film, and the opera all deal with the gradual transformation of simple Greek village folk--chosen to play the major roles in an Easter Passion Play--into the biblical characters. The shepherd Manolios becomes almost Christ-like, especially in his determination to aid a group of desperate wandering Greek villagers, whose homes have been burned down by Turks. "This is very topical right now," says Lazaridis. "Just look at what has been happening in Kosovo." So he and the production team wanted to suggest the immediacy of the story, as well as its historic overtones.
To visualize the power and majesty of Greek Orthodoxy, even at the village level, Lazaridis has suspended above the high central platform six large brass bells and four massive and ornate incense vessels. To show the poverty and misery of the outcast Greeks, the set revolves to reveal them on a desolate rocky mountainside, where they are burying the bones of their ancestors, brought with them from their destroyed village. Here, on the backside of the set, one of the vertical beams, with a cross-bar and ladder, suggests the crucifixion of Christ.
Marie-Jean Lecca's costumes evoke a way of life that can still be seen in rural Greece. Pountney admits that Lazaridis' own experience, growing up in a Greek community, was a great help in getting things right--such as the proud villager who wears his good shoes on laces around his neck to save their soles when he's not in church.
Davy Cunningham's subtle lighting highlights important moments even in this confined and complicated stage space. This is very important, for the villagers or the refugees are always on the ramps, watching the action. If they were bathed in light as well, the audience's attention might be drawn away from major dramatic moments.