Micezyslaw Weinberg's opera The Passenger is one of those pieces that you hope will be a neglected masterpiece. The composer's history, with his fleeing the Nazi's twice, ending up in Soviet Russia where persecution was inevitable, his closeness to Shostakovitch; these all make one want the piece to work. The opera was never performed in his lifetime and received its first performance in concert in 2006, last year's Bregenz Festival production, directed by David Pountney, was its first staging and it is this staging which as come to ENO. We saw it on Saturday 23rd October, the penultimate performance, when the house was disappointing to say the least. The combination of critical reviews and the Holocaust subject matter seem to have kept people away.
Pountney's production with sets by Johann Engels and costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca is impressive and richly detailed; perhaps too much so. Engels set presents the ship in which Liese (Michelle Breedt) and Walter (Kim Begley) are travelling to Brazil, as the upper super-structure. Below this is the concentration camp, in which the various acting areas are created by using trucks which roll on a complex network of rails. For those of us that remember some of Pountney's previous productions for ENO, the result is surprisingly traditional and realistic.
Perhaps here we have to acknowledge that there might be a disjoint between presenting the work in a German speaking country and presenting it here. That the subject matter is striking enough to warrant a conservative production; you can't help feeling that if the production had originated at ENO and been destined only for them, that a more expressionistic, less realistic take on the piece might have happened. One which might have helped the critical reaction in the UK. Because, rather puzzlingly, the opera received good notices in Bregenz, but somehow this aura has failed to cross the channel.
Act 1 opens with a long scene for Walter and Liese in which she see someone on the boat whom she recognises as Marta (Giselle Allen) a Polish prisoner in Auschwitz where Liese was an SS Oversseer. The scene then shifts down to the lower levels as Liese unfolds the story.
Weinberg's style is tonal, using a mixture of expressionistic material and popular type melody. In the camp, there is a short scene for 3 SS officers (Gerard O'Connor, Adrian Dwyer, Charles Johnston) which is probably intended to be sardonically funny in the manner of Shostakovitch, but which falls flat and is just objectionable. A very long scene introduces all of the the female inmates, Marta (Giselle Allen), Katya (Julia Sporsen), Krystina (Pamela Helen Stephen), Vlasta (Wendy Dawn Thompson), Hanna (Carolyn Dobbin), Yvetta (Rhian Lois), Old Woman (Helen Field), Bronka (Rebecca de Pont Davies).
Here the weaknesses in Weinberg's style and manner of setting the text are highlighted. We never really sufficiently distinguish between the characters, only one or two are in high enough relief to be memorable and having them all in rags with shaven heads means that they are visually similar. I must confess that I also found Weinberg's vocal lines rather too unmemorable; the music is generally tonal and quite singable, but too often the interest seems to be found in the little snatches and tags of melody in the orchestra. For me, this long and important scene merged into one undifferentiated fog.
Things improve after the interval, as both Marta and Katya have solos which seem to be folk-song based and give moments of painful repose which are poignantly beautiful. Also, there is a terrific scene for Marta and her fiancee Tadeusz (Leigh Melrose), a meeting after being parted in the camp 2 years previously. But we also have another group scene for the women, which despite a couple of touching moments, does not really seem to go anywhere.
It is telling, that the most memorable and dramatic point in the whole opera is the moment when Tadeusz, ordered to play the Kommandant's favourite waltz at a concert, instead launches into the Bach Chaconne (beautifully played on stage by Gonzalo Acosta).
There is a thriller element to the plot as on the cruise liner, but librettist Alexander Medvedev seems to waste the opportunity and leaves us with loose ends. Walter and Liese struggle to come to terms with Liese's revelations and they worry about whether or not the woman really is Marta. There is a dramatic moment when Marta asks the ship's band to play the Kommandant's favourite waltz and Liese goes to confront Marta. We never see the results of this confrontation, the scene changes back to the camp and then we have the modern day Marta alone with her memories. On the liner, Liese never does confront Marta and we never really find out if it is truly she.
Frankly, I wanted more of Walter and Liese and less of the camp. Weinberg's music for the Holocaust scenes is earnest, occasionally moving and poignant, but does not provide enough real meat, real drama for the horrifying material. Pountney's decision to play these scenes realistically does not help, on-stage beatings and men clearing out the ashes from the ovens, do not really help when the cast are patently well fed and not suffering.
The singing and playing was uniformly excellent with Giselle Allen contributing a towering performance as Marta. Michelle Breedt made a find Liese, coping well with the schizophrenic nature of the role as the character slipped between time zones. Kim Begley was a supportive Walter, and I'd have liked to have heard more from him, have developed this character more. Similarly Leigh Melrose's Tadeusz was underwritten, especially as his moment of defiance was a non-vocal one.
This was quite a long evening in the theatre with two acts of 75 minutes or more. Judicious pruning might make the piece a little more incisive and create more dramatic impact in the music. As it was we came out admiring the performances but for me the jury is still out on Weinberg's music; I can't help feeling we want Weinberg's operas to work so that they can be the operas that Shostakovitch didn't write, and frankly there are not.