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After all the press from performances in New York, Houston and Bregenz, and massive local pre-publicity, one would have thought it difficult, if not impossible, for the Chicago premiere of Miecyzslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger to live up to the high advance expectations.
Lyric Opera of Chicago is closing its 60th season with Weinberg’s long-neglected and lately much-discussed Holocaust drama, which opened at the Civic Opera House Tuesday night. And while there are reservations to be had about the opera itself, Lyric Opera has done itself proud with this show, the most significant premiere of Anthony Freud’s young tenure as general director. With a faultless large cast and striking and imaginative production, one can’t imagine Weinberg’s dark yet hopeful opera receiving stronger advocacy.
The Passenger takes its inspiration from a radio play by Polish writer Zofia Posmysz, herself an Auschwitz prisoner. Weinberg’s opera, provokingly, makes Liese, a former Auschwitz guard, as the central protagonist. Fifteen years after the war while on an ocean voyage to Brazil, Liese sees a woman who she believes to be Marta, a former Polish prisoner of hers. She reveals her SS past to her shocked husband Walter, and the action segues into a series of flashbacks of the concentration camp, the scenes ultimately revealing whether Liese was an innocent victim of the nazis as she claims or a willing and sadistic accomplice in their horrific crimes.
The opera is decidedly slow to get off the ground, with the opening ocean liner scene with Liese and Walter long, talky and melodramatic. But once the opera moves back in time to the Auschwitz barracks and the tale of Marta, her lover Tadeusz, and the other female prisoners takes center stage, the drama and the music take off. The scenes of the women prisoners of different ages and national origins attempting to help each other through the ordeal offer the most moving and powerful moments of the entire work, realized by an extraordinary lineup of female artists, many making their company debuts.
Musically and theatrically, The Passenger moves fluently back and forth between the war camp scenes and the 1960s ship moments. Yet the scenario suffers from one major dramatic flaw—setting the audience up for a shipboard confrontation between the older Liese and Marta, which never happens. The final scene of Marta singing of her lost friends and that she will never forget them is powerful and affecting yet closes the opera on an abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying note.
While snappily orchestrated throughout, Weinberg’s score is similarly uneven and even derivative, only infrequently displaying a distinctive individual voice. The shadow of Weinberg’s friend Shostakovich looms heavily in the more satiric passages, as with the cheap, brashly scored waltz for the Germans. Benjamin Britten drops in as well, with a couple astoundingly shameless cribs from Peter Grimes.
Weinberg’s music is most impressive in the quiet moments. The various solo soliloquies by the women prisoners are often supported with just a spare obbligato violin or wind line, creating a fragile, searching lyricism that is dramatically apt and moving.
Photographs don’t really do justice to the remarkable scenic design by the late Johan Engels. The massive multi-level set contains the deck of the ocean liner and revolves for the Auschwitz barracks and a brief chilling visual of the camp ovens. The period costuming by Marie-Jeanne Lecca and the stark, eerie lighting by Fabrice Kebour are equally effective.
David Pountney’s direction was nearly ideal. The director’s recasting of Alexander Medvedev’s (mostly) Russian libretto to have all the characters speaking and singing in the characters’ languages works superbly. The British director mostly avoided bad nazi film cliches and concentrated on unfolding the tales of the prisoners with great sensitivity. Pountney’s only miscalculation was to have a group of formally clad men in modern dress on top of the set expressionlessly watching the plight of the women in the camp, which served only as an ill-judged distraction from the main action of the opera.
As Liese, Daveda Karanas proved much more effective vocally and dramatically than in her miscast company debut as Kundry in last season’s Parsifal. The mezzo-soprano delivered a superbly rounded performance, singing with a big tone and proved credible as both the frightened wife and scarily sadistic Auschwitz guard.
Amanda Majeski is already on a fast track to a major career, but as Marta, the former Ryan Opera Center member delivered a shattering, star-making performance. If her acting has sometimes seemed tentative and even awkward at times, the soprano here delivered the goods with fearless dramatic commitment. Head shaved and unglamorous, she sang Marta’s interior arias with luminous tone and touching fragility, rising to her final aria with vocal strength and a well of great sadness.
With his powerful heldentenor Brandon Jovanovich brought daunting vocal strength to the somewhat thankless role of Walter, Liese’s diplomat husband. Joshua Hopkins made a fine debut, singing with a robust baritone as Marta’s ill-fated lover, the violinist Tadeusz.
But it was the women in the large supporting cast of Marta’s fellow prisoners, most in their Lyric debuts, who really made this performance take wing.
Kelly Kaduce made a noteworthy Lyric bow as Marta’s doomed Russian friend, Katya, floating a heartbreaking a cappella rendering of a Russian folksong. Nina Warren brought unhinged intensity to the Old Woman driven mad in the camp. The petite Uliana Alexyuk was affecting as the young French girl Yvette who teaches her language to the pious Bronka, touchingly rendered by Liuba Sokolova. Also superb were Agnieszka Rehlas as Hannah and Ryan Center members J’nai Bridges and Julie Miller as Vlasta and Krzystina, respectfully. Wilbur Pauley doubled worthily as the ship Steward and the Elderly Passenger.
The Passenger may not be an operatic masterpiece but Sir Andrew Davis and the Lyric Opera Orchestra played the score with such rich dedication and full-blooded commitment that they almost convinced you that it was. The level of scrupulous preparation was manifest in every bar, with Davis’s acute balancing bringing out every quirky detail of the score from the haunting celesta tones to the sardonic xylophone writing. The woodwinds were especially fine, supporting the spare vocal lines of the women prisoners. Violinist Bernardo Arias doubled Hopkins’s Tadeusz effectively on stage, playing an affecting account of the Bach Chaconne.
The Passenger runs through March 15. lyricopera.org; 312-827-5600.
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