WORKS: The Passenger
PERFORMER: Michelle Breedt, Roberto Saccà, Elene Kelessidi, Artur Rucinski, Svetlana Doneva; Vienna SO/Teodor Currentzis; dir. David Pountney (Bregens, 2010)
CATALOGUE NO: NEOS 51006 (PAL system; dts 5.0; 16:9 picture format)
If it is true that only those who directly suffered the consequences of Auschwitz have the right to turn it into blood-stained art, then Mieczysaw Weinberg, a Warsaw-born Jewish composer who owed his life to Soviet Russia before Stalin threatened to take it away again, and Zofia Posmysz, the Polish author on whose roman à clef The Passenger is based, are among this number.
Weinberg, who died in 1996, would have been proud of this world premiere staging at Bregenz, and the 86-year-old Posmysz was there to take a curtain call. David Pountney’s direction, his most focused for years, and Johan Engels’s sets perfectly encapsulate the dazzling white ship on which former SS guard Lisa hopes to escape her conscience and the not-quite-real Auschwitz below it to which she descends when brought face to face with the woman whose destiny she controlled.
Is it a rediscovered masterpiece? I’m still not sure; for that, Weinberg would surely have had to come out more consistently from under the shadow of his father-figure and mentor Shostakovich. His loud music is very Babi Yar-ish; but in the quiet moments, he’s closer to Britten at his sublime simplest. They’re either frozen in horror – the Prague Philharmonic Choir’s sotto voce is superb – or melting in simple, unsentimental humanity; it’s plausible that a Russian inmate would have sung a consoling folksong, so we melt at Svetlana Doneva’s mesmerising delivery of Katja’s unaccompanied number. The two leads match more-than-acting with top vocal quality; Michelle Breedt’s mezzo Lisa contrasts superbly with Elena Kelessidi’s soprano Marta – heartbreaking when this ‘madonna of the camp’ recognises her lover (baritone Artur Rucinski, a real discovery). Teodor Currentzis conducts with a focus brilliantly rendered in the Neos sound.
The accompanying documentary is essential and could have been even longer, marred only by the fact that there’s no subtitles when the German narrator talks over the English-speaking interviewees. David Nice