Passenger Mieczyslaw Weinberg – The Passenger

Bregenzer Festspiele, 2010 | Teodor Currentzis, David Pountney, Michelle Breedt, Roberto Saccà, Elena Kelessidi, Artur Rucinski, Svetlana Doneva, Angelica Voje | Unitel Classica - NEOS

Is an opera dealing with Auschwitz automatically worthy of acclaim simply through its dealing with a subject that can’t help but be powerful and emotive? Or are some subjects are just so taboo that they shouldn’t be turned into art, since any attempts to do so will almost certainly diminish them? The approach to Schindler’s List, for example, with its theatricality, its glossy, immaculately-lit and carefully composed cinematography, is certainly questionable, as is the means through which Spielberg chooses to approach the Holocaust, but surely even dealing with the subject and bringing awareness to a wider younger audience has its merit? Written in 1967-8, it’s taken over 40 years for Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera The Passenger to receive its World Premiere at the Bregenzer Festspiele in 2010, and on the basis of this remarkable production, it seems that opera is the perfect and perhaps the only art-form really capable of dealing with the complex questions that the subject give rise to.

Dealing with events that took place in Auschwitz from the perspective of looking back on what happened, those questions relate here to the issues of guilt and conscience, specifically over the involvement and culpability of ordinary German people in the atrocities committed during the war in the Nazi concentration camps. The subject is raised as a German official, Walter, is about to set sail with his wife to take up a diplomatic post in Brazil during the 1960s. His wife, Lisa, becomes upset however when she sees a passenger on the ship, a woman who reminds her of a dark episode in her past that she has never told her husband about. The woman reminds her of Marta, a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz, where Lisa was an SS camp overseer.

This is an extraordinary subject to make an opera about, and, as you would expect, it’s treated with the utmost seriousness and gravity and has the potential to be deeply upsetting, the imagery and the setting taking on further significance through its performance in Austria, close to where similar events took place in the past. More than just dealing with the subject in a grim manner – which is easy enough to do through the dramatic situation alone – Weinberg’s The Passenger brings an incredibly more powerful dimension to the subject by making everyone, Nazis and Jews alike, sing. The power of the singing voice can be taken for granted in an opera, but rarely has it been aligned to a subject that is so emotive in its own right, and it serves to intensify both the evil pronouncements of the Nazi camp attendants as well as the laments of the prisoners. But it also has relevance to the story – yes, even in Auschwitz, music was played, and the image this evokes is truly pitiable.

Passenger

The libretto by Alexander Medvedev, based on a novel by camp survivor Zofia Posmysz (the only one of original writer involved in the opera still alive and present at this performance), manages to evoke these deep and dark sentiments through disturbing poetic imagery (included in full in an accompanying booklet and well worth reading on its own) of the “Pitch black wall of death, the last thing you saw before oblivion“.  That brings to mind the “huge black wave” of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the influence of Shostakovich is evident also in the music.  Weinberg’s extraordinary arrangements include jazz, swing music, waltz and simple theatrical accompaniments but it also has folk laments and dark jabs of strings, woodwind and percussion that underscore emotions of a kind that are rarely, if ever, dealt with in opera. Libretto and score combine then to get to the heart of the subject in the most direct and powerful manner, questioning the attempt of Lisa and Walter to wipe away the memory of the past and move on with their lives, comparing it to the Nazi’s looking for an easy solution to dispose of 20,000 bodies a day. This horrifying concern over practicalities seems to dominate over guilt and conscience and over any deeper consideration of what those actions mean.

The staging at Bregenz is remarkably effective, with incredible multi-level set designs that keep the action fluid, retaining the connection between past and present, the ship above the concentration camp below – an arrangement that culminates in Lisa’s spectacular metaphorical descent into hell. It’s the genius of the opera also that it primarily considers the subject from the viewpoint of Lisa, a former SS Overseer in Auschwitz. It takes in not just those who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis, but also necessarily takes into account the people who carried out the atrocities, and tries to consider how they can live with themselves afterwards. Forgiving and forgetting, however, is not an option.

The video quality of the Blu-ray release is superb – possibly the best I’ve seen in High Definition – the whites and creams of the ship scenes contrasted with the sepia tones in the Auschwitz scenes, which show remarkable detail for being so dark. The audio is not perfect on account of it being a live performance and with the difficulties of setting up microphones. The music booms and is a little echoing in places, occasionally overwhelming the singing, but more often it’s clear enough to hear the detail and the colour. There is only one track, DTS HD Master-Audio 5.0, which is centrally focussed, but it downmixes to stereo quite well for those with only a 2-speaker option. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Polish and Russian, with an additional Multilingual option for the libretto which uses several languages. A superb half-hour documentary ‘In der Fremde’ covers the background of Weinberg and the history of the opera, including an interview with Zofia Posmysz.