Monday 18 November 2019

Cross purposes: 'The Greek Passion', Opera North

More musical travels, this time to the Theatre Royal, Nottingham to see Opera North's production of Martinů's 'The Greek Passion'. A completely new work to me, I was quite unprepared for how moving - and ultimately overwhelming - a piece it is. And, much like everything else I've seen so far from Opera North, this production felt supremely confident, generating a grandeur above its means... while, at the same time, communicating something real, focused; drawing out extraordinary drama from previously ordinary lives.

The opera is based on 'Christ Recrucified', a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (who also wrote the novels that inspired 'The Last Temptation of Christ' and 'Zorba the Greek'). The villagers of Lycovrissi stage a passion play every Easter Sunday; once the performance is over, the powerful priest Grigoris immediately casts the roles for the following year. The devout nature of the community is such that the new group of 'actors' bond straightaway and begin studying and rehearsing their characters.

Before long, the innate power of the gospel story starts to affect the cast, who take on aspects of their biblical alter-egos. In particular, the quiet shepherd Manolios - playing Jesus - turns inward, allowing his fiancée to drift away into a rival's arms. The play's Mary Magdalene, Katerina, is attracted to Manolios, but he resists her affections and urges her towards piety. However, her current lover, Panait - as Judas - watches this chaste romance play out, and broods...

Meanwhile, as the players wrestle with their inner demons, a true test of their Christian values presents itself. Refugees from another village, destroyed by the Turks, arrive seeking help. Immediately fearful and suspicious, Grigoris turns them away, despite the heartfelt and eloquent pleas of their leader Fotis, himself a priest. However, the players advise the refugees to remain close by, on the nearby mountain.

Tensions rise as time passes and the actors identify more and more strongly with their roles. Manolios preaches compassion for the refugees; Katerina takes them milk; Yannakos (the postman playing Peter) is tempted by one of the village elders to steal from the new arrivals but discovers his conscience in time. Ultimately, however, Grigoris manages to turn the village against both the refugees and Manolios. In the melee, Panait - fulfilling his character's destiny in the most chilling way imaginable - seizes the opportunity to murder Manolios ... and the crisis abates. Lycovrissi enjoys a normal Christmas, with the hungry, frozen refugees dying outside its borders.

This opera must make tremendous demands of its soloists' acting abilities. While we never see the full passion play as a piece of discrete drama (chaos erupts too soon), from the opera's outset we watch the players not only take on a further character of their own, but then mine a third seam as the lines become blurred between their fiction and their reality. Each of them managed to embody what seemed to me one of the work's more mystical aspects: that Grigoris's casting seems in some way pre-ordained, and that each villager selected has, somehow, been waiting to inhabit their role all along.

Nicky Spence as Manolios was masterful in this respect. Even when we meet the character for the first time, he is oddly apart, distracted - and somehow unsuited to earthly preoccupations like romantic love. For such a vocal powerhouse, Spence gave a bravely quiet performance, establishing the accidental Christ figure with wandering, distracted looks and diffident body language. Only with his increasing confidence as a preacher came the familiar richness of tone and caressing volume.

It seems harsh to single others out, but still firmly lodged in my mind's eye (and ear) are Magdalena Molendowska's Katerina finding a kind of peace in charity, Paul Nilon's haunted, conflicted Yannakos and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts interjecting cries of hate and horror to create Panait's seething, inarticulate rage.

Turning outside the village, John Savournin was a compelling presence as the refugees' spiritual and political leader, Fotis. Stressing these two sides of his character is important, as Savournin's delivery conveyed both compassion and strength, showing us a man of great dignity and self-possession, even when he and his people are at their lowest ebb.

While the performances were impassioned and visceral, the unforgiving poignancy of the plot was underlined by the staging. A casual glance at photos of Christopher Alden's production will immediately tell you that the refugees are represented by effigies. But in fact, this oversimplifies a beautifully subtle idea. Each member of the formidable Chorus of Opera North carries one of the 'bodies'. As such, when the figures are placed in rows en masse, their oppressed silence is visually stifling; yet when the action calls for the Chorus to give the refugees a joint voice, the impact is overwhelming. No-one who saw and heard the 'Kyrie' at the end of Act 2 is likely to forget it, an explosion of tribal anguish and devotion.

But the double expression of body and voice works brilliantly too, as identities merge and swap. For example, an old refugee, about to die, handed his effigy to the villager Yannakos: the 'body' still in his arms as the singer crawled across the stage to die in his grave. To suggest so much - separation of soul from body; the emptiness of a corpse once the light has gone out; the 'levelling' and even communion brought by death to the haves and have-nots - with such stark visuals: elegance and eloquence in tandem.

I loved the layers of meaning that emerged from this apparent simplicity. The monochrome effect of the refugees (white effigies, black-clad Chorus) contrasted with the ironic opulence of the passion players' coloured robes. (Their stylised posture against the black backdrop reminded me of Bill Viola's 'video paintings', themselves influenced so heavily by older religious art.) The placing of the characters in a 'bikers and barmaids' environment with rustic, menial jobs ensuring there is only the merest sliver of difference between their situation and that of the refugees.

But really my final paragraphs of praise should go to Opera North's Orchestra, conducted here by their incoming Musical Director, Garry Walker. The score is really a character in itself, with Martinů's storytelling so economical (brief, partly-spoken links ensure the story rockets along from incident to incident) that he succeeds in creating an innovative hybrid that feels at times like a purely choral work as much as an opera. This mass-like purity is offset, however, by strains of folk and roots music: in the Theatre Royal, it appeared that two or three orchestra members took turns in a kind of makeshift Unusual Instrument Booth to the conductor's left - one wielding an accordion, for example - to anchor the sound to the soil. To me, the orchestra just felt buoyant - shifting mood, register, tempo as if they were generating a live soundtrack to the stage action.

While the run has now ended, 'The Greek Passion' was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 - which means you can still hear it on their website here, or through the BBC Sounds app. At the time of writing, it will be up for another 20 days or so... taking you to around 8 December. Please listen if you can - it doesn't come around too often and Opera North have done it incredible justice.

(Photos from the Opera North website, with the two production stills by Tristram Kenton.)

Monday 11 November 2019

"It feels like love": Barb Jungr, 'Bob, Brel and Me'

This post first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent ArtMuseLondon website. For a handsome range of reviews and thought pieces covering all genres of art and music, please pay the site a visit here.


A new album by Barb Jungr is always a cause for celebration, but it's a particular delight to be able to write about what must be one of her very finest recordings. 'Bob, Brel and Me' is the kind of coherent, complete - and importantly, open-hearted and generous - release that makes a long-term fan like me want to take an armful of copies out and press them into the hands of friends, relatives, even unsuspecting passers-by. I'd just have time to say, "If you want to understand why this artist is so special, take a listen to this. It's all in there"... before moving on to my next target. But I will try to explain here, too.

For those of you yet to encounter Barb Jungr's music, I would say the closest genre fit is jazz - that's the section where you'll find her CDs. But in fact, I think she's one of the finest interpreters of  modern song - any song - we currently have. Whether it's a number as old as the hills, rehearsed and retrod by hundreds of other musicians, or something relatively new or obscure - songs undergo a genuine transformation in her hands, and you never listen to them in quite the same way again. While the material might look like jazz - acoustic, usually piano-based, partly improvisatory - it doesn't always feel like it. Jungr ranges across folk and rock for source material, especially the singer-songwriter lineage of the 60s and 70s. At the same time, somehow, she inhabits a world of cabaret and chanson: live, she is absolutely fearless, unpredictable and magnetic - totally unafraid to take the audience on a journey where they have no idea of the destination.

This powerful performing style might partly explain why, in particular, she has a special gift for covering songs by men. (One of my favourite discs from her back catalogue is called 'The Men I Love: the New American Songbook' - featuring material by David Byrne, Todd Rundgren, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen among others.) But the Man She Loves The Most in this context is almost certainly Bob Dylan, who has two whole Jungr albums to himself (the mighty 'Every Grain of Sand' and the compilation 'Man in the Long Black Coat') and finds his way in some shape or form onto many of the others.

I don't think it's an accident that these blokes are especially renowned and valued for their lyrics - complex, intriguing words and images come pouring out of them - so their work immediately lends itself to Jungr's storytelling charisma and technical precision (the way she seems able to communicate such emotion while dancing around the melodies and preserving crystal-clear diction is worthy of several air-punches throughout this new CD alone). A superb songwriter herself, Jungr's own lyrics are witty, tender and rich in detail, so it's an extra treat when one of her records features a few self-penned tracks.

Essentially, I think her versions of this kind of  'male canon' are so successful because she has an uncanny ability to take the pulse of a song. Her strength and tenacity mean the material retains its grip, but at the same time she punctures any aggression or 'toxicity' in the masculinity - a double threat.

So we come to the latest record, which seemes designed to bring together these three key areas of her craft: 'Bob' is of course Dylan, now accompanied by Jacques Brel to represent the chanson element, and a clutch of mostly new songs written by Jungr with a range of collaborators. Mixing up these three groups of songs results in a seamless listen, due not only to Jungr's voice, but the talents of a really top-notch band - tight and responsive, every track seems to 'evolve' as you listen. There's a large cast, but if I had to mention two specific players who have leapt out at me in the first couple of listens, it would be pianist and arranger Jenny Carr and drummer Rod Youngs.

Two songs sequenced together near the start really showcase their talents. 'Jacky' (Brel) and 'Mr Tambourine Man' (Dylan) make a perfect pair, presenting the 'song and dance man' troubadour side of both their creators. Accordingly, Youngs lifts a terrific version of 'Jacky' with the merest nod to the military might of the original, but with a world-weary, buffeted beat that, more than keeping time, colours the mood of the song around it. While on the other hand, 'Mr Tambourine Man' might be a song that almost everyone thinks they know inside out (especially through the Byrds version) - but here, Carr's intricate arrangement makes her own piano part relatively sparse, but crucially features a tolling, slightly off-kilter, bell-like note, over and over again. It gives the song a flavour of the cyclic, eternal, like a jazz take on 'Winterreise's hurdy-gurdy man. And on both, Jungr weighs each word to perfection, making you wonder how she's actually managing to get through every syllable-packed line while teasing new variations and additions out of the tunes.

But the whole album is full of  commanding vocal performances. 'The Cathedral' (Brel) exchanges the manic intensity of the original with more of a seductive slow-build, Jungr's vocal managing to caress the melody with more layers of attractive embellishment - while at the same time becoming more conversational and persuasive. I'm still not sure how she manages to communicate multiple, at times conflicting moods with just the timbre of her voice, but she does. Another song that benefits from this stately attention to detail is Dylan's 'Buckets of Rain', which here is a hymnal blues underpinned by organ and double bass, elevating the earthly to something spiritual: accordingly Jungr moves apparently effortlessly between a delicate soar and a breathy intimacy.

One pleasing side-effect of these regular returns to Dylan is that the theme of each project overall affects the kind of light Jungr shines on his work. Here, Barb and band have placed him squarely in the Brel Building, with accordion decorating 'Buckets of Rain', and jazz-club piano and sax launching a propulsive pincer attack on the more Bob-like harmonica solo. 'Simple Twist of Fate' is sheer joy from start to finish, with the twist of the title finding its way into the vocal treatment, Jungr varying the circle of the vocal melody or pace while the band changes keys like they were gears.

Scattered among these masterful covers are several infectious originals, seemingly written and scored to stand shoulder to shoulder with the two other 'B's. 'In the Secret Spaces' (written with Jamie Safir) makes more of Youngs's delicately hyperactive drumming, the two-left-feet rhythm matching the bright, conversational tone of the vocal ("the moon - my God, the moon is huge!"), while opener 'Rise and Shine' - a co-write with Level 42's Mike Lindup, gives us tragicomedy in both lyrics and music, as Jungr cheerfully puns and rhymes her way through an agonising break-up story as the band seek to constantly buoy her up. My favourite new song on the record was also written with Lindup: 'Incurable Romantic' casts a characteristically amused look at the old clichés - what concision there is in lines like "Falling free / Into those arms, and no net / How many fish can there be in the sea?" - but set to a sublime tune of deceptively detailed beauty. Looking at the marriage of humour, heart and honesty in Jungr's own work illuminates how and why Dylan and Brel must be so important to her - and, in turn, what she can bring to them.

Barb Jungr has made so many great records. But there's an argument for this one being the finest distillation yet of  where she's coming from, why and how performs such compelling music, and what makes her unique. Warmly recommended.


You can buy 'Bob, Brel and Me' online here.

Barb Jungr's website lists all her upcoming live dates here - go go go!