By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic
What: “The Passenger”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 North Wacker Dr.
When: through Mar. 15
Composer Miecyslaw Weinberg’s opera “The Passenger” has made its Midwest premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago in a production which gives this long-ignored work its proper due.
The opera is based on the radio play “Passenger from Cabin Number 45” by Polish concentration camp survivor Zofia Posmysz. It was composed in the 1960s and championed by Dmitri Shostakovich, but did not see its concert premiere until 2006, and a proper stage premiere finally took place in 2010. It is that world premiere production, directed by David Pountney, that Lyric now presents.
The opera is remarkable at several levels, with a story that is unusually well constructed. In the early 1960s, Liese and her husband Walter are on an ocean liner headed to South America where he will take up a diplomatic post representing West Germany. During a walk on deck Liese is stunned when she glimpses another passenger. She thinks it is Marta, a prisoner she knew in Auschwitz when Liese had served as a guard during the war. Yet Liese was certain that Marta died in the camp. Liese is so undone by what she has seen, she has no choice but to tell her husband everything. Her explanations are at first self-justifying, but as the story unfolds, the prisoners she oversaw take over her story. Their terror, innocence, defiance, confusion and myriad other elements creep unwittingly into her account.
The story of young Polish prisoner Liese becomes the focus, and we learn of the other women with whom she shared her fate, as well as the story of her fiancé, Tadeusz, also in the camp. We see their distress as well as their ability to support each other. In their constant struggle to survive we hear the nascent idea of “never forget,” but it is because the Nazi Liese can’t forget that we learn their stories. The fact that “The Passenger” is never actually proven to be Marta doesn’t matter. Liese has been forced, by guilt or by God, to never forget. And so the lives of these innocents are preserved in memory.
The opera takes place physically on two levels. Elevated above the stage is the ocean liner, bright white and spacious, representing the 1960s. Below that are the dark and cramped quarters of the camp during WWII. The story adds another level, but not one in real place or time: a chorus representing a kind of conscience, comments on the action.
The music is compelling, with Sir Andrew Davis conducting the Lyric Opera Orchestra with commitment.
The staging is relatively simple, but always clear. One of the many strengths of the production is that although the Auschwitz scenes are recalling a nightmare, they are presented more like a dream, with muted lighting and sound.
Soprano Amanda Majeski creates a Marta with both fragility and strength and she sings with control and persuasiveness. Daveda Karanas cleverly makes obscure whether Liese is more worried about being unmasked as a Nazi or is experiencing genuine remorse over her actions. Her rich mezzo-soprano is appropriately authoritative during the Auschwitz scenes. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Liese’s husband Walter sings with clear phrasing and believable outrage. Tadeusz is well drawn by Joshua Hopkins, whose powerful baritone is expertly deployed whether singing tenderly or defiantly.
The six women imprisoned with Marta are superbly cast, each offering a well-sung, strongly acted performance: soprano Kelly Kaduce, mezzo-soprano Liuba Sokolova, soprano Uliana Alexyuk, soprano Nina Warren, mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges and mezzo-soprano Agnieszka Rehlis.
With the majority of the characters sung by women, Weinberg balances the voices in his opera by adding a male chorus. The dozen or so members of the Lyric Opera Chorus are splendid, whether they are setting the scene or commenting on it.
The music, very often imbued with the strong scent of Shostakovich, is attractive and powerful. The opening orchestral strains are a thumping militaristic march. Weinberg mixes mystery and sarcasm well. One of the most interesting musical moments of the opera is when Tadeusz is compelled to play the violin for the camp commandant. He refuses to perform a trifling waltz and instead plays the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita for violin no. 2. Weinberg starts with Bach’s solo violin and as the scene progresses layers the Bach with his own music. At the climax, Bach has been replaced with horror (and Tadeusz’s death sentence) in a most effective way.
The idea of a Holocaust opera may seem deeply depressing, but Weinberg’s piece gives us moving portraits of people who were far more than mere victims and the story is constructed so that it is life-affirming, in spite of the despicable acts which underlay much of the action.
The innocent may die and the guilty may live, but the truth exists in spite of it all. An opera which effectively communicates this is well worth seeing.