The Passenger, English National Opera
Helen Wallace on the power of Mieczysław Weinberg's opera The Passenger, written in 1967 but only now receiving its UK premiere
History doesn’t happen in neatly twisted plots. And Weinberg’s opera The Passenger comes directly from lived experience, as we were reminded when its original author, Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz was led on stage by director David Pountney to a standing ovation. Her three years in the camps was locked inside her until, 15 years after the war, she thought she heard the voice of her prison warder in Paris. The experience unleashed this psychological drama, that began life as a radio play and yesterday – belatedly – received its UK opera premiere.
Without doubt it’s Mieczysław Weinberg's masterpiece: an opera in which the orchestra sings, screams and snarls the story’s meaning as eloquently as the singers; an opera in which text and music are integrated to a visceral degree. Which makes its neglect so tragic: neither composer nor librettist Alexander Medvedev lived to see it staged.
Written in 1967, it didn’t receive its Russian premiere until 2006: the time lapse has not diminished its impact, but it is significant. The work was written in Russian isolation before the Western wave of post-Holocaust art. It doesn’t have the explosive dilemma of Sophie’s Choice or the grand heroics of Schindler’s List; the sentimentality of The Boy in Striped Pyjamas or the forensic detail of Primo Levi's writing. There’s no symbolic shorthand to draw on, as Reich did in Different Trains. It’s a subtle work that explores the soul in extremis. As Shostakovich said it’s, ‘a hymn to humanity’, written ‘with the blood of the heart’ by a composer who’d lost his entire family in a camp.
But a hymn isn’t always dramatic. The opening scenes on the white cruise ship are electrifying: we encounter a handsome diplomatic couple on their way to Brazil to the sultry accompaniment of a jazz rhythm section, and rapidly discover the wife, Lisa, was, in fact, an SS guard at Auschwitz. She (the magnificent Michelle Breedt) is provoked into a confession by the sight of a veiled stranger: one of her ex-prisoners. The action moves into the bowels of the boat, which in Johan Engels’s brilliant set is the hell of a women’s block in Auschwitz. The pace slows up as we descend into their purgatory. The performances of the band of women were coruscating but dramatic tension sags. We find Lisa trying to break the will of a particularly proud Polish prisoner, Marta, played with searing sincerity by Giselle Allen. She offers her the chance to see her lover Tadeusz, in order to corrupt her into becoming a ‘helper’.
We’re back on the ship for Act Two, and the mysterious woman asks the band to play the camp commandant’s favourite waltz, so confirming her true identity as Marta. The opera’s climax needs no words: we witness Tadeusz performing Bach’s Chaconne instead of the waltz he’s been asked to play, to the fury of the guards, who smash the violin and kill him. The confrontation between Lisa and Marta never comes. Weinberg gives Marta her own final, beautiful elegy alone. The bathos poses a challenge to us all.
This piece assaults the ears with ravishing music: it may inhabit the same world as Weinberg’s mentor Shostakovich, but the influence cuts both ways. Every drum-beat has a vital piquancy, there’s not a note out of place, nor in the ENO orchestra’s riveting performance. We hear Britten, too, in the clatter of xylophones, the radiance of the love duet, but Weinberg’s own voice dominates, in the keening purity of a Russian folk song, jazz drum riffs and the tender eloquence of the chorus, in music that will now – thanks in large part to David Pountney - never fade.
The Passenger is on at the Coliseum, London until 25 October.
Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine