The heavy screen lifts to the urgent, jerky banging of what sound like timpani from the dark bottom right of the orchestra pit, and, tentatively, more coloured tones begin to float upwards. Centre stage is revealed the brilliant white iron deck of a steamer, its corner lurching forward, as if suspended in mid-air, about to topple over.
This is a piece about the Holocaust, based on the semi-autobiographical account of an Auschwitz survivor, Zofia Posmysz, and set to music in 1968 by the Polish (and Jewish) composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Weinberg fled his native Poland following the Nazi invasion, and while in the USSR made friends with Shostakovich and was later imprisoned during the Stalinist purges for his ‘bourgeois Jewish nationalism’. He has written many chamber and orchestral works, a number available on YouTube, and worth listening to. This is the UK premiere of his opera.
It begins in the 1960s as a middle-aged couple, Walter and Liese, speed by liner towards Brazil for Walter’s new diplomatic posting. The bulk of the story, though, is played out on stage in the dark space below the ship, and comprises memories of Auschwitz. These are triggered by a chance meeting on deck with ‘the passenger’, a veiled woman who resembles a figure from Liese’s past. Liese (compellingly played by mezzo Michelle Breedt) reveals to her husband that she was an SS guard at Auschwitz: the veiled woman might or might not be Marta, a spirited Polish Jew, whom she singled out to battle but never broke. The two women lie at the heart of the story, which turns on a genuine ambiguity: not only is it unclear whether the passenger really is Marta (does it matter? - I think it should), but there is a lack of firm moral resolution at the close.
It is uncharacteristically two female voices, Liese and Marta’s (soprano Giselle Allen), that dominate the near three hours of this piece, then, with short punctuations from Walter in the present, and Marta’s lover Tadeusz in the past. More strangely, although these two women are at loggerheads with each other and even interact, it never really feels that they engage directly. Their close connection and relative isolation from one another both helps and hinders the characters’ development - and hence their emotional draw.
There is also a mixed chorus and occasional speaking parts that jar at first, but ultimately add to the quite distinctive musical palette, reminiscent of both Shostakovich and Britten with hints of Schoenberg. Overall though, it is the texture of Weinberg’s music that’s most arresting, the loose tonality and regular use of drums and bells, the often bare and brittle melodies and wide open bits of chord, odd bits of jazz and tugging dissonances. Musically, it is at once easy to listen to but difficult to get lost in, giving way to a state of sort of resigned semi-alertness (the ENO’s trailer picks out the more recognisable musical lines):
This music might seem a little unfamiliar more generally, perhaps, since both Modernist composers and those like Weinberg, who were responding to them or pushing musical language in different ways into the twentieth century, tend to be less played in the UK, with its conservative classical tastes. The addition of Weinberg to the ENO’s repertoire is in this sense a good thing – the music demands more active engagement from the audience if it’s to be properly understood - and hopefully more musically challenging yet rewarding works will follow. The use of humdrum speech for the libretto also works well, though as usual there are downsides to having a translation rather than the original Polish.
The problem here is the way the production almost tries too hard, and at times swamps the music. The set invites the idea that it needs its meaning drawn out. It is too awkwardly psychological: the bright white of the top deck, where men walk about in white suits and women in white dresses, leaves little doubt it represents an awkward new coat of a more civilised life; the steps down to below signal the all too easy descent into something more barbaric never too far away; the worn out industrial-looking stage floor with its bits of black stone strewn around is a place of great pain and misery, the end of two train tracks jut out towards the audience on the stage floor – this is a brutish place from which there is no return.
Both past and present worlds are therefore tense, close and constantly present on stage. The static mood is maintained throughout this piece and to its ambiguous end. Unfortunately, though, this heavy atmosphere of ever-present past doesn’t quite fit with the outbreaks of musical humour and tiniest hint of musical resolution offered by Weinberg in the closing chords: it seems to stifle the characters a little too much, making them difficult to engage with. The disjointed formality of the set unfortunately has its limits, too. As a terrified Lieae is invisibly ‘forced’ down the steps into her memories below by the veiled woman who might or might not be Marta walking towards her, it begins to look a little exhausted.
The driving impulse of the story is simple enough, though, to allow more intimate observations to breathe. Some of the best scenes are surprisingly between Liese and her mostly silent though doting husband, their retreat to the tiny cabin, sitting on the white bed, deciding whether they should go to the ship’s dance and what will happen if it really is Marta, Liese needing to be heard and the husband shocked, worrying about his career if people find out, shocked again. Liese obsessively washing her hands, their forced gayness and the fact Walter obviously still fancies his wife, despite his confusion and albeit sedately.
The believable domesticity at times communicates more powerfully the difficult legacy and horrors of the Holocaust than the mad shrieking of inmates below. Moreover, despite Marta having the last words as the curtain closes on the world of the memory of Auschwitz, her muteness in the present (she only walks around the deck with a veil covering her face) means she never fully emerges as a character in her own right. It is only when the camp’s prisoners are shown interacting with one another in their cramped bunks - in control but only just - celebrating a Marta’s birthday for example, that they genuinely connect and solicit easy, surprising feeling. A scene where male SS guards stand in a row to watch Liese and praise her attractiveness – a moment half menacing and half simply some bored men passing the time at work – captures something both more elusive and dangerous, too.
Unfortunately, though, come the first of the story’s two climaxes, where Marta’s lover and fellow inmate Tadeusz, a violinist, is tasked to play the commander’s favourite waltz and chooses to play Bach in a brave gesture of defiance, it falls oddly flat. When a guard takes the violin and smashes it to bits, we know Tadeusz will be next, but the moment lacks pathos. Similarly, when towards the end at the ship’s dance, the woman who might be Marta requests this same waltz, and this time it’s played, it is all a bit bewildering: the two moments don’t quite connect.
In this, following Shostakovich in describing The Passenger as ‘a masterpiece’ is too obviously to confuse the supportive intervention of one friend for another with a more protracted musical judgment in light of present day. On the other hand, neither is it fair to burden Weinberg with all the expectations and frustrations of a work dealing with Auschwitz, or to accuse him of simply ‘copying’ a musical language from more established friends.
Overall, this is a good piece, well executed and with an engaging and interesting musical voice. Weinberg is at once passionate and restrained, confident and quite sensuous - often surprising. His music should be engaged with directly, without the unnecessary and quite unedifying hype.