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Chroniques

The Passenger, an Opera

La Passagère, un opéra
The Passenger, een opera
Jean-Christophe Le Toquin
Translated by Sarah Voke
p. 30-32
This article is a translation of:
La Passagère, un opéra [fr]

Abstracts

Opera from out of Purgatory. In the previous edition of Testimony, we devoted our chronicle to The Emperor of Atlantis by Viktor Ullmann. This time, we would like to look at another opera, again one that is not very well-known: The Passenger by Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Its last performance, in London, aroused a few debates.

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Editor's notes

In association with Res Musica.

This text is an adapted and updated version of the chronicle dating from 20 September 2011 written by Jean-Christophe Le Toquin and published in Res Musica.

The opera was performed on 10 July 2014 in the Lincoln Center in New York: http://culture.pl/en/article/operatic-holocaust-onstage-rouses-new-york

Full text

The Passenger.

The Passenger.

© Catherine Ashmore.

1Until today, the opera The Passenger, composed by Mieczyslaw Weinburg (1919-1996) and completed in 1968, has hardly been staged more often than The Emperor of Atlantis. It was performed for the first time in 2006 in Russia, however only as a concert and it was performed on stage for the first time in Bregenz in Austria in 2010. The last time it was put on stage was in London at the Coliseum in 2011, by David Pountney and the English National Opera orchestra directed by Sir Richard Armstrong. It was then a repeat of the production of the world scenic creation of the Bregenz Festival in 2010. Of course, we know much better Andrzej Munk’s eponymous film (1963) that was adapted from the radio drama Passenger from Cabin Number 45, written by Zofia Posmys and edited in 1959.

2The story: Lisa, a former SS officer in Auschwitz and now the wife of a diplomat, is travelling on a transatlantic sailing for Brazil. During a port of call, she thinks she recognizes Marta, a former prisoner and Polish member of the resistance whom she believed had died in the camp. Emotional shock, guilt, fear of being recognized and denounced, Lisa finally admits her past to her husband and revives the episodes of her ambiguous and domineering relationship with the prisoner.

3At the performance on 20 September in London, English critics from The Guardian to The Financial Times, from the The Evening Standard to The Telegraph highlighted with a troubling unanimity the quality of the staging and the commitment of the singers, only to better deplore the music of the opera. One critic reckons that the work is a “total dud”, whereas another recommends against the opera to people who wish to spend an evening that ends by “feeling good about themselves or humanity”. They all find opposite reasons to discourage adventurous music-lovers. For example, some claim “there’s too much music for such a subject!”, while others hammer “there isn’t enough music to interest music-lovers!”. Regarding the representation of Auschwitz on stage? Some say it is too realistic, others find it too dramatized. Essentially, English newspapers spontaneously offered the same analysis as the carefully deliberated one of Bolshoi (that has always refused to perform this opera), as the work is “musically” unsuitable.

4How can such a cacophony of analyses be explained? Indeed, the first act is slowly set, beginning with the white light of the liner before descending (literally and figuratively) into the hell of Auschwitz. Admittedly, the second act follows and examines in detail a psychological and dramatic exploration combined at the same time with a musical and lyrical intensity. What is precisely remarkable is Weinburg’s capacity to manage his time, the progressive building of tension, the economy of music thus marking the difficult time in the camp, counterbalanced by orchestral and vocal bursts that, by drawing attention, make it possible to follow the work.

5À écouter et étudier la partition, Dimitri Chostakovitch, auteur de la Symphonie n° 13 Babi Yar et ami de Weinberg, disait y avoir « mieux compris, à chaque fois, la beauté et la grandeur de cette musique ».

6From listening and studying the music sheets, Dmitri Shostakovich, composer of the Symphony No. 13 Babi Yar and a friend of Weinburg, said he “further grasped the beauty and the grandeur of this music”.

7Yes, the concentration camps challenge the very question of the irreprensentability of extreme violence. Yes, it’s a question of finding a particularly precise approach so as not to fall either into an unhealthy voyeurism, or into an unbearable sense of pathos. The strength of the libretto allows him to beautifully avoid all caricature. “Lisa the SS” who we would like to hate is more complex and interesting than her diplomat husband who has a clean conscience, yet who will finally choose the most shameful attitude. He wants to forget all of his wife’s and his country’s past, not for her sake, but to preserve his own reputation and social status. What is closest to us becomes the most despicable.

  • 1 The DVD was released in 2010 and is available at NEOS (https://neos-music.com)

8In this London performance, Michelle Breedt played an excellent Lisa, just as good as the version reproduced in the DVD of Bregenz1. Giselle Allen as Marta was exceptional. She astounds us with her harrowing song, that does not care about the “prettiness” of the sound in order to reach the truth of the music and of the drama. Her air of grandeur in the second act is of an overwhelming strength.

9The tense direction from Sir Richard Armstrong brought out the qualities of the orchestration, sustaining the rhythm without rushing the necessary slowness proper to the narration. The staging by David Pountney and the sets were remarkably efficient, with a constant back-and-forth movement between the deck of the liner and the floor of the camp, as well as the comings and goings of the wagons that in turn serve as the barracks, the walls of the camp and as a reminder of the crematorium furnaces.

10An addition to the opera in comparison to the book, the character of the Tadeusz, the fiancé and violinist, brings a dramatic climax at the end of the opera: summoned to play a vulgar waltz for the head of the camp and his Nazi acolytes, he interprets Chaconne by Bach. It is a lesson and a challenge set by the artist, highly knowledgeable in German music, even if he was Jewish, against impostors in uniform. He paid with his life for this provocation. This theme of the prisoner defending European culture against those who are violating it, is not a fictional invention. It echoes the Terezin Requiem by Josef Bor that tells the true story of conductor Raphaël Schächter who managed to practize and to perform Verdi’s Requiem in front of Eichmann at the camp of Terezin.

11A book about guilt, the incomprehension of others and of oneself (Lisa seems sincere when she complains to her husband that she was hated by all the prisoners), memory, The Passenger is also a reflection on love, the necessity of holding onto one’s moral values and onto culture like a challenge that is both derisory and supreme against barbarism. The Passenger is a real and pure moment of opera, carried out magnificently, about a theme that cannot be more delicate. It waited more than forty years to be played. A few more years of patience are still needed for it to be appreciated for what it is.

12At the end of the performance, a slender elderly woman approached to pay tribute, cautiously crossing the rails. It was Zofia Pomysz, the author of the initial text, who lived and survived Auschwitz and who “knew” Lisa. Yes, the Marta of the opera is still alive and by her work and by her presence she is telling us that those who suffered must not be forgotten.

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Notes

1 The DVD was released in 2010 and is available at NEOS (https://neos-music.com)
Image 1000000000000154000001CD05DE178B.jpg

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List of illustrations

Title The Passenger.
Credits © Catherine Ashmore.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/temoigner/docannexe/image/1247/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 96k
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References

Bibliographical reference

Jean-Christophe Le Toquin, The Passenger, an OperaTémoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire, 118 | 2014, 30-32.

Electronic reference

Jean-Christophe Le Toquin, The Passenger, an OperaTémoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire [Online], 118 | 2014, Online since 01 October 2015, connection on 04 March 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/temoigner/1247; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/temoigner.1247

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About the author

Jean-Christophe Le Toquin

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