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CD Review

Mieczyslaw Weinberg

Unitel Classica Blu-ray 109080

The Passenger

  • Liese - Michelle Breedt
  • Marta - Elena Kelessidi
  • Walter - Roberto Sacca
  • Tadeusz - Artur Rucinski
  • Katja - Svetlana Doneva
  • Krzystina - Angelica Voje
  • Vlasta - Elzbieta Wroblewska
  • Ivette - Talia Or
  • Hannah - Agnieska Rehlis
  • Old Woman - Helen Field
  • Bronka - Liuba Sokolova
  • First SS Officer - Tobias Hächler
  • Second SS Officer - Wilfried Staber
  • Third SS Officer - David Danholt
  • Elderly Passenger/Steward - Richard Angas
  • Senior Overseer/Capo - Heide Capovilla
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Teodor Currentzis
Stage Director - David Pountney
Set Designer - Johan Engels
Costume Designer - Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer - Fabrice Kebour
Live Performance July 31, 2010 from the Bregenz Festival, Bregenz, Austria
Arthaus Musik/Unitel Classica Blu-ray 109080 161m+29m LPCM Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio
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Also available on 2DVDs 109079: Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe - JPC

Zofia Posmysz (b. 1923), ninety-two years of age as I write this, is a survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. A Roman Catholic arrested for her tenuous association with someone distributing anti-Nazi materials, she endured much hardship and suffering at Auschwitz but, unlike the Jewish prisoners, was spared execution, though on two occasions she avoided that fate owing to intervention by the camp physician. In 1959 she wrote a radio play based on her Auschwitz experiences entitled Passenger in Cabin 45, and in 1962 she produced a novel, The Passenger, based on the play. That novel led to a film version a year later.

Composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish Jew who lost his parents and sister in the holocaust and barely escaped Poland himself to the Soviet Union in 1939, produced an opera in 1967-68 based on the Posmysz novel, with a libretto by Alexander Medvedev. The work was in rehearsals in 1968 at the Bolshoi but ultimately dropped from the schedule. A concert performance of the opera took place at the Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theater in Moscow in 2006 and the work was finally staged only in 2010 at the Bregenz Festival in Austria. This recording is derived from that first production. The opera has since been produced elsewhere, including in Houston and Chicago. The Bolshoi most probably decided against performance because of pressure from the cultural czars who would have preferred to see the focus on Russian heroism rather than on Jewish suffering.

But the work remained unperformed long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, long after a bureaucrat could effectively ban it. In a sense, it's not difficult to understand why: the story is quite intense and tragic, its unsettling subject matter roiling the mind and heart in very unpleasant ways. I'm sure that many who see this opera will be gripped by its story and music, but will wonder if this is an artistic event to be enjoyed. Let's face it, we do enjoy operas with intrigues and infidelity that result in mayhem and murder because they feature beautiful arias even from the dying hero or heroine, and also because we know it's not real and that the singers will soon be taking curtain calls. But the action is all too real in The Passenger, a sort of Schindler's List or The Pianist but without a happy ending. I believe Weinberg wants you to feel the pain and suffering of the characters, but to take from that suffering and the story something that amounts to an artistic redress to the horrors and tragedies of the holocaust. It's a noble hope that we the viewers and listeners might develop greater compassion, a greater sense of humanity and an intolerance of evil. Maybe we do take something from it and maybe we don't – I don't know – and maybe we just enjoy the opera for its story and music, the way some people enjoyed Schindler's List and The Pianist for their stories and nothing else. We are, after all, rather inured to violence and suffering in this very imperfect world today.

The action in The Passenger occurs on two levels on stage and in two time periods: the upper level takes place around 1960 on an ocean liner, while the lower level is set in Auschwitz during the Second World War. Anneliese (Liese – Lisa in English) and her husband Walter, a German diplomat, are on the ocean liner bound for Rio de Janeiro. Anneliese sees a mysterious woman on board whom she thinks may be Marta, a Polish woman and former prisoner at Auschwitz where, unbeknownst to Walter, Liese served as an SS guard. Claiming to be free of guilt concerning her Nazi past, Liese tells all to her husband and worries about what could happen if the woman is Marta and recognizes her. Walter, who had nothing to do with the Nazis during the war, fears now that he could be ruined.

Let me say now that if you think you might be interested in acquiring this opera and don't want to know crucial details of the story, particularly how it ends, stop reading and go to the next paragraph. Liese has flashbacks about the camp which are shown at great length on the level below. We see over the course of the opera that Liese is a monstrous person who rationalizes her actions at the camp but at least seems to show guilt now, but guilt born of fear. At the camp Marta meets her fiancé Tadeusz, a violinist also imprisoned there. They have an emotional reunion, having not seen each other for two years. Later Tadeusz defiantly plays the Bach Chaconne in D minor for the camp Commandant instead of the requested waltz, and is immediately condemned to death. Aboard the ocean liner during a party the mysterious woman requests that the band play a waltz – the same one favored by the Commandant at Auschwitz – thus convincing Liese that the woman is indeed Marta. Liese finally confronts her and cowers in fear, backing away, and then remembering the scene when Tadeusz plays the Bach Chaconne and is dragged off for execution. We are never sure that the woman on the ocean liner is actually Marta, though it would certainly seem to be her or a likeness who becomes Marta in Liese's guilt-plagued mind.

There is much more to the story than this capsule summary would suggest and there are many complexities in its symbolism that time doesn't allow for thorough examination. Stage Director David Pountney does a magnificent job in bringing this opera to life. He creates a bright, pleasant but rather cold world on the ocean liner above and contrasts it with a dark, grimy and evil world in the death camp below. Costuming is very effective: the Auschwitz inmates wear the same kinds of attire you see in documentaries about the camps when they were liberated at the end of the war. Sets are modest but very effective and lighting is deftly manipulated throughout the opera. Pountney doesn't fall into the trap of focusing obsessively on the cruelty by showing excessive bloodshed and brutality, though there are both bloodshed and brutality in this production but nothing that should sicken the average viewer.

The singers are quite fine throughout the opera, even those in minor roles like the SS officers and the various inmates. Michelle Breedt as Liese is vocally and dramatically effective but, appearing as a twenty-two-year-old in the camp and a thirty-seven-year-old on the ocean liner, is too mature for the younger Liese and still not quite young enough for the older Liese either. Elena Kelessidi as Marta is excellent even if she too doesn't quite look convincing as the nineteen-year-old inmate Marta. Roberto Sacca as Walter and Artur Rucinski as Tadeusz are also very convincing. The Prague Philharmonic Choir turns in splendid work too. By the way, the libretto, apparently written originally in Russian, is sung here in German, English, Russian, Polish, Yiddish and Czech, depending on the nationality of the speaker (singer) in the scene and to suggest the universality of the story. It is a very effective device, not least because it also adds to the realistic atmosphere. True, very few people attending a live performance will likely understand all the languages, but then opera houses (and recordings) make use of subtitles, thank goodness.

Teodor Currentzis gets an excellent performance from the Vienna Philharmonic, which is no surprise. Still, to play this music with such commitment and spirit is no small feat because Weinberg incorporates different genres, such as jazz, and often shifts from one style to another. Speaking of his style, I've written before about Weinberg's debt to Shostakovich, a mentor who, by the way, believed this opera to be a masterpiece, as declared in an interesting essay by him that is reprinted in the otherwise rather scant album notes. In Weinberg's music here, there are moments in which the shadow of Shostakovich can be noticed, but they are relatively few.

Weinberg's expressive language is not difficult for a work written in the 1960s. The music associated with the ocean liner scenes is generally lighter and more transparent, with occasional elements of jazz. The music used for the Auschwitz scenes, which comprises the majority of the opera, is more austere and serious, often profound and moving. To give you an idea of its character one might liken it to the music in the Shostakovich Symphony #14, also a deep and at times unsettling work featuring vocal soloists. I would say that Weinberg has produced a masterpiece here, but perhaps only a minor masterpiece. Time will tell. The sound reproduction, picture clarity and camera work are all excellent.

There is an interesting documentary bonus feature, In der Fremde, that contains rehearsal scenes, as well as commentary by Zofia Posmysz, David Pountney, Teodor Currentzis and others associated with the opera. It also includes historic footage and photos (Shostakovich and Weinberg) and modern-day scenes of the Auschwitz camp grounds and buildings. I doubt another recording of this work will come along soon, and so if you think this opera may prove intriguing, don't hesitate to acquire it.

Copyright © 2016, Robert Cummings