The Passenger, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, September 2011Posted on 20 September 2011
A ship bound for South America in the early 1960s is taking a German diplomat and his wife Liese to a post in Brazil. Steep stairways connect the upper deck of the ship to the hell of 1940s Auschwitz below. Nearly twenty years after the Second World War a guard and a prisoner of the concentration camp are on the same ship — or are they?
The set design was the idea of librettist Alexander Medvedev who died just a few days before the opera’s first staged performance at the Bregenz Festival in 2010. The composer himself, Mieczysław Weinberg, died in early 1996, but incredibly enough the ex-prisoner of Auschwitz who wrote the original story appeared on stage at the end, looking much younger than her 88 years. Zofia Posmysz, a young Polish woman, was one of the few who survived, and after the war she became a journalist. One day in the late 1950s she was sent on a quick round-trip visit to Paris and found herself close to a party of German tourists. She thought she heard the voice of one of the guards in the camp, “And there on the Place de la Concorde I heard that shrill voice yelling again. … I looked in all directions and searched for her … my heart had stopped beating for a moment”. Back in Poland she wrote a radio play inspired by this incident, but in order that the guard could not get away, she set it on an ocean liner.
Weinberg and his librettist turned it into an opera in 1968, but it remained unstaged until last year. Weinberg was a Pole who escaped to the Soviet Union in 1939, but since his work did not fit the political correctness of so-called ‘Soviet Realism’, it was largely ignored. Musicians however knew it well, and Shostakovich wrote that he would never tire of this opera, “I have heard it three times already and have studied the score. … [it] stirs the very soul in dramatic terms”. The music is on a subtle psychological level, sometimes represented by a single instrument, and at one point a solo violin is played on stage by one of the prisoners. This addition to Ms Posmysz’s original story is very effective. As she herself recalls, “The worst … was in 1943 and 1944 when huge numbers of Hungarian Jews were transported to the camp. … these masses of people were marched off towards the crematorium … and our excellent orchestra stood in front of the block Kommandant’s quarters and played … all those cheerful pieces [such as] Ich brauche keine Millionen“. This jaunty foxtrot can be heard on YouTube, and it’s a shock to listen and imagine . . . But to get back to the opera, the violinist is commanded to play the Kommandant’s favourite waltz. He knows he will be killed afterwards, so he plays Bach instead, is beaten to death, and his priceless instrument smashed to pieces. Later on the ship, the band plays the Kommandant’s waltz, apparently requested by the passenger who was once a prisoner. The effect on the guard is devastating, and the ghost of the past sends her down from the upper deck to the camp beneath.
This fine production by David Pountney with sets by Johan Engels and costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, was cleverly lit by Fabrice Kebour, sometimes from high above, sometimes from below. It’s a superb set with the white of the ship and its occupants contrasted with the darkness of the camp, and the railway tracks. Deft conducting by Richard Armstrong, and excellent singing from Michelle Breedt as Liese with Kim Begley as her diplomat husband, and especially Giselle Allen as Marta the prisoner whose role parallels that of the author herself. It’s a great team effort, with Leigh Melrose and Julia Sporsén as two of the other main prisoners. The story and subsequent opera is a remarkable creation, beautifully staged, and I shall go again.
Performances continue until October 25 — for details click here.