Houston Grand Opera delivers powerful experience with “The Passenger”
If anything might refute Theodore Adorno’s statement that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” it would be Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera The Passenger.
Houston Grand Opera presented the New York premiere of The Passenger Thursday night in the Park Avenue Armory, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. The opera is about the human experience of the Holocaust, from the perspective of the perpetrators—a device that absolutely defies cultural and social conventions.
The Houston company presented the U.S. premiere of Weinberg’s opera this past January in the same David Pountney production (which created a sensation at the 2010 Bregenz Festival). The Lincoln Center Festival is reviving this skillful and lavish staging for a total of three performances. (The Lyric Opera of Chicago will present the same production next February.)
Alexander Medvedev’s excellent libretto is adapted from Zofia Posmysz’s 1959 Polish radio play, Passenger from Cabin Number 45. The opera takes place in the late 1950s, where Liese (mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt) and her husband Walter (tenor Joseph Kaiser) are sailing to Brazil. Liese sees a woman, her face covered in a veil, and recognizes her from Auschwitz, where Liese was an SS officer and the woman, Marta (soprano Melody Moore), was one of her prisoners.
The story alternates between the present on the ship and the past in Auschwitz, with a staging that moves from the gleaming white, glamorous ship’s deck to the black depths of the camp below. The underlying narrative has strong elements of melodrama—not only the chance meeting of Liese and Marta but the further machinations of the author’s hand that place Marta’s fiancé, Tadeusz (baritone Morgan Smith, ably expressing his character’s courage and determination) in the camp.
In the hands of others—particularly some unnamed filmmakers—similar material has resulted in maudlin, even repulsive sentimentality. Weinberg studiously avoids sensationalism, though, and his powerful score drives the production.
While it fully supports and expresses the drama, the music mostly underplays the obvious emotions and is all the more affecting for its restraint. Weinberg’s language is an unusual hybrid. The opening is expressionistic, then becomes a romanticism clarified by modernism like Shostakovich. There is a repeated figure that sounds adapted from the “invasion” theme of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, and the orchestration comes directly out of Stravinsky (a timpani solo near the end is cribbed from The Rite of Spring).
Just as one begins to think that Weinberg is a superior craftsman but without first-rate brilliance, the composer produces some breathtaking melodic and structural invention, especially in a gorgeous duet for Marta and her fellow prisoner Katya (soprano Kelly Kaduce, singing lyrically), a partisan acquainted with Tadeusz.
That music is part of a long barracks scene that closes the first act, and the setting continues in another extended scene to open the second act. These are the only stretches of the opera where the pace becomes static, with stretches of torpor. The confrontation on the ship between Liese and Marta is the sole moment when the direction does the obvious, as Marta forces Liese backwards down the ladder into the past.
The climax comes when Tadeusz, a violinist, is ordered to play a vulgar waltz, the camp commandant’s favorite music. Instead, he begins to play the Chaccone from Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin. The Nazis grow increasingly bored and restless, until they beat Tadeusz, smash the violin, and send him off to the death block.
By this point, the structure of the opera has turned Liese’s viewpoint against her. Through the scenes in Auschwitz, Marta has become the lead character, and the simple, unshakeable harmonies of her music become the center around which everything else turns. She never gives in to Liese, and Marta’s strength becomes the moral center of the entire work.
Breedt, Moore and Kaduce have full, shining voices. They sang with excellent articulation and beautiful sound. Most importantly, they were consistently inside the music and characters, expressing difficult nuances of anguish, agitation, bluster, strength and tenderness with clarity. Walter is a thankless role, vain and callow, and Kaiser managed to make his humanity and lack of dignity understandable if not sympathetic. Smith carried the strength and determination of Tadeusz with confident ease, and the power of his voice expressed the character’s defiance.
Breedt and Moore especially were excellent vocal and expressive foils for each other, sparring with each other dramatically while supporting each other musically.
Pountney’s production is strong and unaffected: the barracks are set on train tracks—used to move lights and sections of Johan Engels’ ingenious set—and there is even a stark display of the gas chambers—the “black wall of death” the chorus sings about, where for an unforgettable moment Poutney has the cast shovel ash out of the ovens.
In the Armory’s giant drill hall, Patrick Summers led alert, assured playing from the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra. The instrumental colors and balances sounded ideal, and the agility and sensitivity of the players were superb. The orchestra and singers are discreetly amplified, and except for a few glitches opening night, the sound was transparent and the miking unobtrusive.
In this New York cultural moment, where one finds oneself discussing with strangers the wisdom, or lack thereof, of the Metropolitan Opera canceling their HD broadcast of The Death of Klinghoffer, The Passenger stands as proof of the need to perform important works like this to wider audiences.
It’s too easy to dismiss the Nazis as mere monsters, rather than the more complex reality that they were people with a moral culpability that is real and discernible—which proves even more moving and powerful in Weinberg’s devastating opera.
Zofia Posmyz, the author of the play, who herself survived Auschwitz, was in attendance and received a generous ovation.
The Passenger will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. lincolncenterfestival.org