Something over three years ago I wrote a review of the video of the 2010 Bregenz Festival production of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger. There’s now been a second fully staged production, at Graz, recorded in 2021 (without an audience i think but otherwise no obvious COVID concessions). The Bregenz review contains a whole lot of information on the performance history of the piece as well as a plot summary so I’ll not repeat that. Having a quick look at it before reading on will likely make the rest of this post more comprehensible.
Seeing a second production of a new opera is always enlightening. It tends to refine, or reinforce one’s initial impressions or maybe to drastically change them. In this case it reinforces my belief that this is a fine and important opera, maybe even a truly great one. What helps is that the Graz production, directed by Nadja Loschky, is very different from David Pountney’s earlier effort so it’s easier to think about the essence of the opera rather than the individual interpretations. For the record both productions use the multilingual libretto created for Bregenz.
Whereas Pountney uses a two level set with completely different looks for the cruise ship and Auschwitz, Loschky uses a single rather abstract set in which the cruise ship and Auschwitz elements are intertwined. She also introduces silent actors playing both younger and older versions of the SS character Lisa. This means that Auschwitz Lisa and cruise ship Lisa can be on stage simultaneously. Sometimes the interweavibg is quite unsettling. For example. in the sixth scene where a prisoner “selection” takes place the victims collapse dead on stage but are then carried away by the ship’s stewards and put in what look like filing cabinets.
Loschky also takes some liberties with the plot. For example, in the eighth scene where Tadeusz, as an act of defiance, plays Bach, rather than the demanded waltz, and is killed, Marta is not present. Loschky also goes to some lengths to make the SS characters as unsympathetic and revolting as possible though, to be honest, they don’t really need it. What’s interesting is that different as the two productions are they both seem emotionally and intellectually faithful to the spirit of the piece. Neither is comfortable to watch. Both are compelling.
There are strong performances. Dshamilja Kaiser is chillingly effective as Lisa. Will Hartmann is a curious but effective Walter. He seems strangely disengaged which intensifies as he gets drunker. And by the dance scene (seventh scene) he is very drunk indeed. Nadja Stefanoff and Markus Butter as Marta and Tadeusz have some wonderfully lyrical moments and both exude strength and dignity. The minor roles are all well done especially Katja (Tetiana Meyus) and Yvette (Sieglinde Feldhoffer). The Oper Graz chorus is up to the job as is the Grazer Philharmoniker. Roland Kluttig seems very well attuned to the different moods and styles of the score and it all sounds really good.
Axel Stummer’s video direction is decent and I don’t think we miss anything important but he does give a lot of shots of the orchestra and conductor even when there’ action on stage which is a bit odd. Audio (DTS-MA surround and PCM stereo) is high quality as is the video. The booklet has a good essay, a synopsis and a track listing but there are no extras on the disk. Subtitle options are English, German, Korean and Japanese.
I don’t have a clear preference between the Bregenz and Graz recordings. They are different but both have thought provoking productions and really good performances. I’m just happy this fine work is being performed and recorded.
Catalogue number: Naxos Blu-ray NBD0144V