Bohuslav Martinu’s final opera, “The Greek Passion,” explores a story that was as explosive in the mid-twentieth century as it is today. When a group of refugees seeks protection in the village of Lycovrissi, the community is thrown into upheaval: Will the villagers reaffirm their Christian virtues or indulge in acts of selfishness?
This Aug. 13-27, the opera will be performed for the first time at the Salzburg Festival in a production directed by Simon Stone. Maxime Pascal, the 2014 winner of the summertime event’s annual Young Conductors Award, leads — his first fully staged opera here — in the Felsenreitschule.
The festival has performed Martinu’s work occasionally since 1950, presenting the world premiere of his orchestral piece “Les Fresques de Piero della Francesca” in 1956. Recent editions have seen mostly chamber music.
“The Greek Passion” had personal resonance for Martinu, who was perpetually homesick in his last years. Born in 1890 in Policka — a town in Bohemia just over the Moravian border (in the modern-day Czech Republic) — he came into maturity as a composer in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s. In 1941, as a member of the French Resistance, he fled the Nazis for the United States. Martinu would die in Switzerland, in 1959, unable to return to his native country for political reasons.
After a long search for a tragic subject matter that he could personally adapt into a libretto, he discovered the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis and won approval to adapt his book “Christ Recrucified.”
“I now feel ready for another step,” the composer wrote to the Guggenheim Foundation in 1956, “which is most difficult and entails the greatest responsibility, and that is a musical tragedy.”
Martinu collaborated closely with Kazantzakis as he worked through the novel, in an English translation by Jonathan Griffin. The original conflict, involving Turkish rule, was tightened, so that the standoff in Lycovrissi (a town north of Athens) involved only Greeks.
Ales Brezina, director of the Bohuslav Martinu Institute, explained that the story line, as such, had particular import to the composer in the context of Cold War politics that pitted people of the same nation against each other. Having taken up American citizenship, Martinu was considered a traitor in his home country. In the United States, he had to face the repercussions of being a Czech native during the anti-communist McCarthy era.
“In the context of a bipolar world where everything was suspect,” Mr. Brezina said, “Martinu was moved by the topic of what people were capable of doing to their fellow countrymen.”
Mr. Pascal, the conductor, also emphasized the centrality of this dynamic to the work. “A group of Greeks arrives in a Greek village, and they start to chase them away,” he said. “This reveals the viciousness of an angry mob toward another human being and humanity itself.”
The score features two choruses — one representing the people of Lycovrissi, another, the refugees — a structure that follows a long tradition of musical settings of the Passion, or the story of the Crucifixion, as told in the Gospels of the Bible. In “The Greek Passion,” art becomes life as the villagers re-enact a Passion play. The shepherd Manolios, who portrays Christ, is ultimately murdered after he challenges his fellow villagers about the authenticity of their values.
Mr. Pascal pointed out that Kazantzakis was considered a heretic for reinterpreting the doctrines of faith as they had been handed down by the church. “He saw a revolutionary figure in the figure of Christ but most of all saw in the mystery of Christianity something along the lines of a legend or myth,” he said.
Martinu left behind two very different versions of “The Greek Passion” because of an unusual twist of events. He chose the Royal Opera in London as the location for the premiere, although there was also interest from the Vienna State Opera, the Salzburg Festival and La Scala in Milan.
Yet the opera was ultimately rejected by external advisers to the theater’s board. The musicologist and conductor Anthony Lewis argued that certain works by the Czech natives Smetana and Janacek had yet to be heard in London, and that the house needed to champion contemporary English composers.
Despite the relentless support of the Royal Opera’s music director, the Czech-born Rafael Kubelik, the board would not reverse its decision. Martinu, for his part, believed that the war for independence in Cyprus — which was affecting diplomatic relations between Britain and Greece — might have tainted the subject matter.
He revised and tightened the score for the Zurich Opera, where the show premiered in June 1961, after Martinu’s death, under the baton of his friend and patron, Paul Sacher. The original version, intended to premiere in London, did not hit the stage until 1999 at the Bregenz Festival in Austria.
Mr. Brezina, who reconstructed the score for that production, compared the original version to a “dramatic fresco” or a “mosaic in which individual scenes and appearances blaze against each other.” The Zurich version, which will be performed in Salzburg, by contrast resembles “a kind of oratorio with wonderful melodies and choral scenes,” he said.
Martinu’s mature works achieve an unprecedented synthesis of Czech and French elements, combining Bohemian rhythms and Moravian cadences with the influences of such composers as Stravinsky and Debussy. His “Greek Passion,” however, is distinct in that he carefully absorbed Greek Orthodox music, only occasionally alluding to his Czech roots. In 1955, Martinu traveled to New York to meet with friends of Kazantzakis and learn about Greek folk music and liturgy.
Mr. Brezina explained that Martinu was keen to portray simple people while keeping his distance from the “farmer’s music” that can be found in the works of Janacek, who was the first composer to adapt Moravian speech patterns and melodies to the operatic stage. “He found in Kazantzakis exceptional intelligence, but also a down-to-earth person,” he said. “All the characters in the ‘Greek Passion’ have almost no education. They behave instinctively.”
Mr. Pascal noted that the displacement of peoples in Greece echoed developments in Martinu’s native Czechoslovakia. “The oral songs and dances that migrated from region to region must have spoken enormously to him,” he said.
The conductor also pointed to the score’s strongly Impressionist character. “There is incredible violence, but at the same time everything seems to be bathed in sunlight,” he said.
Mr. Pascal further reflected on the superimposition of time periods that can be typical for a composer’s ultimate statement: “The after-war period, the period of Christ, Greece: There is a continuity between the past and present that is vertiginous.
This is also found in Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ — in which 8th-century Chinese texts bifurcate with a text that the composer wrote himself — or Gérard Grisey’s ‘Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil.’”
Although it is rarely performed, “The Greek Passion” is considered Martinu’s greatest operatic achievement, alongside his 1938 surrealist masterpiece “Juliette.” “It is the self-proclaimed pinnacle of his work for the stage,” Mr. Brezina said.