Sunday, October 16, 2011

Guest Blogger EB reviews Weinberg's "The Passenger", English National Opera

This production of Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger (1968) represents its first staged production (after a concert premiere in 2006).  It was premiered in Bregenz in 2010, and although I was at the festival last year I didn’t take the opportunity to see it, as it was planned as a co-production with ENO for transfer to London this year. It had its ENO premiere last month, to a mixed critical reception – having received plaudits at Bregenz, and there are further revivals planned in Warsaw and Madrid.

The enterprise is very much the brainchild of David Pountney, intendant of the Bregenz Festival, who seeks to champion the works of this little known Polish composer. The Portrait (1980), also given at Bregenz, had its UK premiere at Opera North earlier this year. But it seemed right that The Passenger should come to ENO, where Pountney was Director of Productions during the “Powerhouse” era of the 1980s, in many ways changing the face of British opera forever. How exciting that he will now be taking the helm of Welsh National Opera – where, I learnt this week, productions of Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux are slated for 2013 and there are rumours of a Ring Cycle in the future.
Back to Weinberg. A Polish Jew, he escaped the Nazis by travelling to Russia where he was both admired and heavily influenced by Shostakovich. His style was seemingly also influenced by Britten. His oeuvre includes seven operas (eight if you include one operetta). I’m not sure if Pountney plans a cycle of all of these, although on this evidence he is unlikely to achieve the coup he pulled off with Janacek years earlier, for Weinberg has no such gift for lyric theatre.

The Passenger, based on a novel by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, certainly has dramatic potential. Liese, a German woman in her 30s, is embarking on a new life in Brazil with her older diplomat husband Walter. On the ship she sees a mysterious veiled woman – The Passenger – whom she believes she recognises. She confesses to Walter her previous role as an overseer in Auschwitz, hitherto a secret, and that she thinks The Passenger is Marta, a Polish prisoner whom she thought had been condemned to the “pitch black wall of death”. The opera cuts between the ship – and the impact of Liese’s revelation on hers and Walter’s relationship - and Auschwitz, where we discover the stories of a group of female prisoners as well as that of Marta and her violinist fiancé Tadeusz, whom she discovers is in a different part of the camp.

Alas, it is dramatic potential unrealised. Weinberg is no Janacek, and The Passenger is no From the House of the Dead. The central relationships are strikingly underdeveloped, and it takes exceptional skill to translate the horrors of the gulag to the stage – think of the road to Siberia at the end of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. His attempts to inject black humour (again, this needs the audacity of his Russian counterpart) – such as the three “comic” SS Officers in the second scene – fall flat.

But ultimately it is Weinberg’s lack of skill as a composer that prevents The Passenger from becoming a masterpiece. The dramatic pace is deathly slow, even in the second act where the scenes are shorter. Musically, two distinct worlds emerge: the ship – airy strings interspersed with jazz sections which again imitate Shostakovich – and the camp, mostly crashing dissonance, thuds of percussion and screeches of brass. There are remote, dissonant choruses reminiscent of Britten’s War Requiem, including a disembodied male chorus which serves little discernible dramatic purpose and whose moralizing lines sound crashingly trite in English. There is a dearth of invention and of singable vocal lines. Too often, these are monotonous, rhythmically unvaried and ungratefully written. Liese’s music is colourless, mid-range mezzo stuff, whilst, Marta’s is often punched out in the upper part of the soprano register. Not until an unaccompanied Russian folksong (sung by prisoner Katya in the middle of the second act) do we hear a vestige of a melody that moves the heart; the ending is very weak indeed.

The Passenger herself – silent on the ship and never actually identified as Marta – provides the most striking dramatic device, and the most powerful moment for me was in Act Two. Liese and Walter attend a dance on the ship at which The Passenger asks the band to play a waltz; this turns out to be the Auschwitz Kommandant’s favourite. We cut headlong to the pivotal scene in the camp where Tadeusz is ordered to play that very waltz for the Kommandant (see second photograph), but breaks into Bach instead: for his insubordination, he is sent straight to the extermination cells. Yet the scene is an anticlimax, almost underwritten; Marta’s subsequent apotheosis is both strident and understated at the same time.

The piece could hardly have received a better premiere production. Pountney opts to tell the story clearly and cleanly. It occurred to me that Pountney and prison camps are well acquainted, and not only from his seminal House of the Dead and Lady Macbeth productions. I have a vivid recollection of his ENO Königskinder in the 1990s, the children in their Auschwitz-style costumes falling one by one among the barbed wire at the finale, and of the shoes lining the forestage in his 2000 Nabucco at the same house.

As with the score, the two worlds in the production are neatly divided. At the start we are faced with the brutal buffers of two railway lines – unmistakably the iconic one-way tracks to Auschwitz. The ship inhabits the upper portion of the set, airy, platforms of “deck” around the white funnel, sparkling before a golden horizon. The camp is ingeniously represented below with two “railway” trucks which variously represent different areas of the camp, including the tiny cells of the female barracks. Characters – either is SS uniforms or threadbare, striped prison garb – both emerge from the shadows and are picked out in harsh searchlights. Pountney’s directorial style has mellowed over the years, but his sheer skill demonstrates his vast experience.

The cast is mainly excellent, though for me there was a significant exception in the person of Michelle Breedt’s Liese. This South African mezzo, new to me, has a vast concert repertoire, but lacked the vocal and dramatic charisma to bring Liese’s conflicts to life. Her medium size mezzo is competently produced and her singing correct but perhaps the lack of variety in the vocal lines translated to her performance. I was left thinking that ENO had missed an opportunity, and wondered what the likes of Sarah Connolly would have made of it. As Marta, Giselle Allen gave a characteristically committed and at times thrilling performance. I have long admired Allen – her Opera North Jenufa, Ellen Orford and Rusalka were hugely exciting – yet this music pushed her feisty spinto too often into into hardness, and left her precious little opportunity for lyrical expression.

Elsewhere, some wonderful performances in lesser roles. Leigh Melrose is virile as Tadeusz, and Kim Begley – enjoying character roles after a career of the heavy Wagners – is effective as Walter. I loved Helen Field (Pountney's Violetta in the 1980s!) as the “Old Woman” prisoner driven to shrill distraction. Excellent work too from regulars Rebecca de Pont Davies and Pamela Helen Stephen, and from new names Rhian Lois (bell-like as the French teenager Yvette) and Carolyn Dobbin (immensely touching as Greek prisoner Hannah).

This project is a noble enterprise, and one I am glad to have experienced. But it is Weinberg’s writing that renders it, ultimately, a piece unlikely to take hold in the mainstream repertoire, with a score that – like those iconic railway tracks – goes nowhere.

Final performance on Tuesday October 25th, London Coliseum.

Next up: La Somnambula at Covent Garden and The Queen of Spades at Opera North

Photo Credits: Bregenzer Festspiele/Karl Foster, Reuters Bregenz

Ed Beveridge, 16/10/11

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