It’s the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by troops of the Red Army and I’ve been watching a recording of Miecyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger. The opera was written in 1968 but the political climate in the then Soviet Union meant that, despite the advocacy of Dmitri Shostakovich, it had to wait until 2010 before it was given a fully staged performance. That happened, and was recorded, at the Bregenz festival in a production directed by David Pountney.
It’s based on a radio play by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz; Pasażerka z kabiny 45 (Passenger from Cabin Number 45), which has also been rewritten as a novel and turned into a film. The libretto for the opera is by Alexander Medvedev and was originally in Russian. For Bregenz it was reworked into a mixture of German, English, Polish, Yiddish, French, Russian and Czech; reflecting the nationality of the various characters. It’s a work of two worlds. It opens on an ocean liner taking a German diplomat and his wife, Lisa, to a new posting in Brazil c.1960. She, unbeknown to him, is a former guard at Auschwitz. On the boat she sees a woman who she believes to be, and turns out to be, Marta, a Polish prisoner she thinks she sent to her death. The rest of the opera takes place in the camp with occasional switches between the two worlds, most effectively in the second act where 1960s Marta pursues 1960s Lisa, Don Giovanni like, back to the Hell of 1945. Along the way there is considerable violence and also some extremely touching scenes. It’s dramatically extremely skilful and well crafted.
The production is brilliantly supported by the set design of Johan Engels and the costumes of Marie-Jeanne Lecca. It’s a two level affair. Above is the ship; bright and light with everyone smartly dressed in creams and whites. Below is the camp; dark, grungy, dirty and Hellish. At crucial points the two worlds collide. There’s also clever use of moving elements to fill out the stage picture without holding up the action.
The score is extremely interesting. It’s hard to describe. Sometimes it is abrasive, dissonant and percussive, sometimes it’s wonderfully lyrical. There are elements of jazz, folksong and minimalism and at the climax of Act 2 there is the chaconne from Bach’s Partita for Violin No. 2. The influence of Shostakovich is apparent but it doesn’t sound like him or, indeed, Russian, at all. It’s a very original and fine piece.
The cast is headed by Michelle Breedt as Lisa. I think it must have taken a good deal of courage to have taken on one of the least sympathetic characters of all time (Pinkerton included). It’s a fabulous performance vocally and dramatically, creating an entirely convincing account of a character who is curiously unaware of what they are doing/have done. Elena Kelessidi as Marta, singing largely in Polish, is equally effective as the prisoner who will not give up hope, even when she sees her fiancé beaten to death. In Act 2 Scene 3 she sings the most beautiful aria to Death itself. It’s a large cast and everyone contributes but I’d single out Svetlana Doneva as Katja, the Russian partisan, and Roberto Sacca as Walter, Lisa’s frightened and somewhat uncomprehending husband.
Teodor Currentzis conducts with the Wiener Symphoniker in the pit. He really has the measure of the many moods of a most complex score and he gets a really good performance out of the orchestra. There’s fine work too from the Prague Philharmonic Choir.
Felix Breisach directed for video and it’s a pretty decent reflection of the action. Light levels are often very low so he does tend to go for quite a lot of close ups but there’s no gimmickry. I think it might have benefitted from more shots showing “both worlds”. I watched on DVD which had a surprisingly vivid Dolby 5.0 soundtrack and a decent picture, though only just in the darker scenes, but I would really like to have seen the Blu-ray version with DTS-HD MA sound. Subtitles are unusual. There’s English, French, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish and Korean. The booklet contains a good general essay on the piece as well as an appreciation by Shostakovich. It could use a synopsis though!
As a bonus there’s a generous and highly recommended “making of” documentary; In der Fremde, which includes footage of the creative team at Auschwitz with Zofia Posmysz. There’s lots of useful information about Weinberg and his extensive catalogue of works as well as interviews with his widow. Well worth watching.
Although this recording is not at all easy to watch I can highly recommend it. The Passenger is a very good, perhaps great, work standing comparison with anything from the second half of the 20th century. It’s hard to imagine it getting a better production than Pountney’s and the there are some outstanding performances.