22 Sep 2011
The Passenger, ENO, London
The circumstances behind Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger at the ENO, London, are extraordinary.
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On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.
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Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.
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Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.
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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.