Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Irish soprano Paula Murrihy on Salzburg, Sellars and Singing

For Peter Sellars, Mozart’s Idomeneo is a ‘visionary’ work, a utopian opera centred on a classic struggle between a father and a son written by an angry 25-year-old composer who wanted to show the musical establishment what a new generation could do.

A riveting Rake’s Progress from Snape Maltings at the Aldeburgh Festival

Based on Hogarth’s 18th-century morality tale in eight paintings and with a pithy libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, Stravinsky’s operatic farewell to Neo-classicism charts Tom Rakewell’s ironic ‘progress’ from blissful ignorance to Bedlam.

The Gardeners: a new opera by Robert Hugill

‘When war shall cease this lonely unknown spot,/ Of many a pilgrimage will be the end,/ And flowers will shine in this now barren plot/ And fame upon it through the years descend:/ But many a heart upon each simple cross/ Will hang the grief, the memory of its loss.’

Richard Jones's Boris Godunov returns to Covent Garden

There are never any real surprises with a Richard Jones production and Covent Garden’s Boris Godunov, first seen in 2016, is typical of Jones’s approach: it’s boxy, it’s ascetic, it’s over-bright, with minimalism turned a touch psychedelic in the visuals.

An enchanting Hansel and Gretel at Regent's Park Theatre

If you go out in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. And, it will be no picnic! For, deep in the broomstick forest that director Timothy Sheader and designer Peter McKintosh have planted on the revolving stage at Regent’s Park Theatre is a veritable Witches’ Training School.

First staged production of Offenbach's Fantasio at Garsington

Offenbach's Fantasio is one of the works where, replacing the mad-cap satire of his earlier operettas with a more romantic melancholy, he paved the way for Les contes d'Hoffmann. Unpopular during his lifetime, Fantasio disappeared and only work by the musicologist Jean-Christophe Keck brought the score together again.

Rusalka in San Francisco

It must be a dream. Though really it is a nightmare. The water sprite Rusalka tortures herself if she is telling the story, or tortures the man who has imagined her if he is telling the story. Either way the bizarrely construed confusion of Czech fairy tales has no easily apparent meaning or message.

Orlando in San Francisco

George Frederic Handel was both victim and survivor of the San Francisco Opera’s Orlando seen last night on the War Memorial stage.

Anthony Negus conducts Das Rheingold at Longborough

There are those in England who decorate their front lawns with ever-smiling garden gnomes, but in rural Gloucestershire the Graham family has gone one better; their converted barn is inhabited, not by diminutive porcelain figures, but fantasy creatures of Norse mythology - dwarves, giants and gods.

Carmen in San Francisco

A razzle-dazzle, bloodless Carmen at the War Memorial, further revival of Francesca Zambello’s 2006 Covent Garden production already franchised to Oslo, Sidney and Washington, D.C.

Weimar Berlin - Bittersweet Metropolis: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra

Strictly speaking, The Weimar Republic began on 11th August 1919 when the Weimar Constitution was announced and ended with the Enabling Act of 23rd March 1933 when all power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag was disbanded.

A superb Un ballo in maschera at Investec Opera Holland Park

Investec Opera Holland Park’s brilliantly cast new production of Un ballo in maschera reunites several of the creative team from last year’s terrific La traviata, with director Rodula Gaitanou, conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren and lighting designer Simon Corder being joined by the designer, takis.

A Classy Figaro at The Grange Festival

Where better than The Grange’s magnificent grounds to present Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Hampshire’s neo-classical mansion, with its aristocratic connections and home to The Grange Festival, is the perfect setting to explore 18th century class structures as outlined in Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto.

A satisfying Don Carlo opens Grange Park Opera 2019

Grange Park Opera opened its 2019 season with a revival of Jo Davies fine production of Verdi's Don Carlo, one of the last (and finest) productions in the company's old home in Hampshire.

Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, 2019

The first woman composer to receive the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize could not have been a worthier candidate.

Josquin des Prez and His Legacy: Cinquecento at Wigmore Hall

The renown and repute of Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521) both during his lifetime and in the years following his death was so extensive and profound that many works by his contemporaries, working in Northern France and the Low Countries, were mis-attributed to him. One such was the six-part Requiem by Jean Richafort (c.1480-c.1550) which formed the heart of this poised concert by the vocal ensemble Cinquecento at Wigmore Hall, in which they gave pride of place to Josquin’s peers and successors and, in the final item, an esteemed forbear.

Symphonie fantastique and Lélio United – F X Roth and Les Siècles, Paris

Symphonie fantastique and Lélio together, as they should be, with François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles livestreamed from the Philharmonie de Paris (link below). Though Symphonie fantastique is heard everywhere, all the time, it makes a difference when paired with Lélio because this restores Berlioz’s original context.

Ivo van Hove's The Diary of One Who Disappeared at the Linbury Theatre

In 1917 Leoš Janáček travelled to Luhačovice, a spa town in the Zlín Region of Moravia, and it was here that he met for the first time Kamila Stösslová, the young married woman, almost 40 years his junior, who was to be his muse for the remaining years of his life.

Manon Lescaut opens Investec Opera Holland Park's 2019 season

At this end of this performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at Investec Opera Holland Park, the first question I wanted to ask director Karolina Sofulak was, why the 1960s?

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Cosmic traveling through his Klavierstücke, Kontakte and Stimmung

Stockhausen. Cosmic Prophet. Two sequential concerts. Music written for piano, percussion, sound diffusion and the voice. We are in the mysterious labyrinth of one of the defining composers of the last century. That at least ninety-minutes of one of these concerts proved to be an event of such magnitude is as much down to the astonishing music Stockhausen composed as it is to the peerless brilliance of the pianist who took us on the journey through the Klavierstücke. Put another way, in more than thirty years of hearing some of the greatest artists for this instrument - Pollini, Sokolov, Zimerman, Richter - this was a feat that has almost no parallels.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

The Passenger (image by English National Opera)
22 Sep 2011

The Passenger, ENO, London

The circumstances behind Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger at the ENO, London, are extraordinary.

Mieczysław Weinberg: The Passenger

Lisa: Michelle Breedt; Marta: Giselle Allen; Walter: Kim Begley; Tadeusz: Leigh Melrose; Katya: Julia Sporsen; Christina: Pamela Helen Stephen; Vlasta: Wendy Dawn Thompson; Hannah: Carolyn Dobbin; Ivette: Rhian Lois; Old Woman: Helen Field; Bronka: Rebecca de Pont Davies; SS officers: Adrian Dwyer, Charles Johnston, Gerard O’Connor; Steward/Elderly Passenger/Kommandant: Graeme Danby. Conductor: Richard Armstrong. Director: David Pountney. Associate Director: Rob Kearley. Set Designer: Johan Engels. Costume Designer: Marie-Jeanne Lecca. Lighting Designer: Fabrice Kebour. Associate Lighting Designer: Christian Steinschaden. Fight Director: Ran Arthur Braun. Translator: David Pountney. English National Opera, Coliseum, London, 19th September 2011.

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera

 

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.

The Passenger_Carolyn Dobbin & Giselle Allen_Credit Catherine Ashmore.pngCarolyn 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.

The Passenger_Michelle Breedt & Giselle Allen_Credit Catherine Ashmore.pngMichelle 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.

Anne Ozorio

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):