22 Sep 2011
The Passenger, ENO, London
The circumstances behind Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger at the ENO, London, are extraordinary.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
The circumstances behind Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger at the ENO, London, are extraordinary.
Everything about the Holocaust packs a powerful emotional punch, and rightly so.
Something insane descended on this world at that time — in Nazi-occupied lands, in Stalinist Russia, and beyond, that was so catastrophic that we must never forget. Zofia Posmysz’s original novel was based on her own experiences at Auschwitz, and Weinberg’s family perished. Posmysz appears at the end of performances and is deservedly applauded, for she symbolizes the triumph of good over evil, values we all want to believe in. This gives The Passenger such potent extra-musical experience that it’s more a communal homage than an opera.
David Pountney’s production, premiered at Bregenz, is amazing. Visually it’s so striking that it takes your breath away. This production, with designs by Johan Engels, costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca and lighting by Fabrice Kebour makes the best possible case for this opera. No-one can come away unmoved by this set, or by the intelligence of the direction. This production absolutely makes the case for this opera as theatrical experience.
Everything’s bleached and pristine, so unnaturally bright it hurts the eye. Like Lisa Franz herself. Franz was a camp guard in Auschwitz. Lisa and Walter have been married 15 years but he’s never known about her past. “But I did nothing bad” she says. Perhaps. However, anyone connected to Auschwitz was tainted, just by association. Even victims suffer survivor guilt. Think of Primo Levi.
The revelation was provoked by the sight of another passenger on board ship who reminds Lisa of Marta, her favoured prisoner. In the original book, Posmysz wondered what had happened to her own persecutor, who’d apparently escaped retribution, so it’s an excellent plot device, framing an account of life in camp. Perhaps this is a key to interpreting the two parts of the opera. The First Act is more consciously dramatic, while in the Second, drama is imposed on a “normal” account of a thoroughly abnormal situation.
Music and text in the First Act are didactic to an extreme, which makes for good theatre. The orchestration is loud, strident and jarring, whipping up an excited emotional response. Subtle it is not, though, for the text is unbelievably stiff. Maybe it’s the English translation, originally by David Fanning, adapted by David Pountney for this performing edition. Perhaps they’re deliberately trying to present the singers as automatons, but this undermines the very real emotions characters like these might have. In Lisa’s case this is understandable because the character is in such denial she’s hardly human. Excellent performance by Michelle Breedt. If we never get to depths with what makes Lisa what she is, it’s not through any lapse in Breedt’s performance. It’s the script. Lisa’s husband, Walter, for example, reacts to her revelation in stylized clichés. Even the sturdy Kim Begley can’t make Walter feel real. Walter’s not evil. He, too, has been betrayed by the big lie, and deserves more sympathy.
Unfortunately, characterizations in the Second Act are equally cardboard. This is by far the better part of the opera in musical terms, where superficial but emotive B-movie shock gives way to moments of lovely writing, particularly in the arias where the women sing of their pasts and express their solidarity for one another. Excellent playing — evocative basses and deeper strings, a beautiful flute line. The ENO orchestra, conducted by Richard Armstrong, at its best.
Carolyn Dobbin as Hannah and Giselle Allen as Marta
The script, however, doesn’t reflect the greater subtlety in the score. Giselle Allen plays Marta with statuesque dignity. Her stage presence fills the role, but it’s her ability that comes over, rather than the material she has to work with. Each of the other women are characterized by nationality rather than much personality, though what they sing is uplifting. Leigh Melrose.s Tadeusz is strongly sung, but the subplot of love, violin and mad waltz has more potential than is developed.
There’s a lot of Holocaust-exploitation around, but The Passenger is most certainly sincere and honourable. The problem may be in the inherent difficulty of turning subjective experience into slightly more objective art. Such events are so painful that it’s perfectly human to need to block the extremes of pain. Good intentions don’t necessarily lead to great art or depth of perception. Again, remember Primo Levi and the price he paid for his brilliance.
Another difficulty stems from the circumstances in which the opera was written. Weinberg was in the Soviet Union, a repressive regime, where political considerations prevailed over art. The aria about “the freedom of the steppes” rings hollow when you think of reality. Moreover, there was and is a long history of anti-semitism in Russia and in Poland. Different solutions to Hitler, but similar agendas regarding Jews. Obviously not all inmates of Auschwitz were Jewish, and thousands of Catholic Poles were exterminated too. They must not be forgotten. But the world associates Auschwitz with the Holocaust and with Jews, and with death factories. So it’s not easy to hear lines like “I’m a Jew, we’re meant to die”, even if it’s in context. No-one is meant to die. There are millions of individual stories, all important, but the Holocaust was so all-encompassing that it needs broad perspective.
Michelle Breedt as Lisa and Giselle Allen as Marta
Since this production was based on a new performing edition, there might have been opportunities to tighten the orchestration and especially the libretto, by Alexander Medvedev. Even Poutney has said, it was the subject tof this opera that drew him to Weinberg. What works fine in a novel does not lend itself to the restraints of opera. The Passenger is Weinberg’s masterpiece, far more daring than The Portrait, and as such deserves stringent editing. Weinberg may now be highly fashionable, but he isn’t Shostakovich. Even As a theatrical and emotive experience, The Passenger works in this production. But more depth and less breadth would make it more satisfying as opera.
Incidentally, I kept hearing Peter Grimes (particularly the Sea Interludes) in this music, so I was delighted afterwards to read David Nice’s programme notes about the influence of Benjamin Britten. Nice mentions Peter Grimes in connection with Shostakovich, but perhaps Weinberg also knew Peter Grimes and what the character meant. Another reminder that Aldeburgh was not insular and is part of a greater European tradition.