Cast: 4 Sopranos, 3 Mezzos, Alto, 2 Tenors, Baritone, 3 Basses, 3 Actors
Instrumentation: 3 Fl (incl. Picc), 3 Ob (incl. English Horn), 3 Clarinet, Alto sax, 3 Bsn (incl. contra),
6 Hn, 4 Tpt, 3 Tbn, Tuba, Timp, Perc, Celesta, Harp, Piano, Guitar, Strings.
Stage Band: Accordion, Guitar, Piano, Jazz Drums, Double Bass.
Duration: 2 hrs, 30 min.
Below are reviews from the September and October 2011 performances by the English National Opera conducted by Richard Armstrong, and the premiere staged performances in the Bregenzer Festspiele in July and August 2010, with the Vienna Symphony conducted by Teodor Currentzis. Both productions were directed by David Pountney.
"I shall never tire of the opera The Passenger by M. Weinberg. I have heard it three times already and have studied the score. Besides, I understood the beauty and enormity of this music better and better on each occasion. It is a perfect masterpiece…”
-- Dmitri Shostakovich, Moscow, September 1974
Photo by Catherine Armstrong
'Although David Pountney’s superbly well judged production offers three unremittingly dark and often agonisingly slow hours in the theatre, it should not be missed. Johan Engel’s split level set brilliantly captures the duality of the story…heartbreaking scenes of love and courage…
The climax musically and emotionally comes when Marta’s proud violinist fiancé, Tadeusz, sung with compelling anger by Leigh Melrose, is ordered to play the camp commandant’s favourite tacky waltz, but instead strikes up Bach’s magnificent Chaconne… a supremely symbolic confrontation - Germany at its noblest confronting Germany at its foulest.
It’s an opera teeming with overt references, from haunting Russian folksong to blaring German marches, as well as astringent string writing reminiscent of Britten… under Richard Armstrong’s dependable baton there are many striking performances…It is a compelling historical document that demanded an airing - lest we forget.’
The Times (Richard Morrison), September 20, 2011
'The Passenger is perhaps the boldest artistic take ever on the Holocaust…‘Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Holocaust opera… [is]one of the most unflinching engagements with this subject ever made… [it]demands attention. And risky though it may be to label a first production “definitive”, it is hard to imagine it ever being done better. Johan Engels’s set counts among the most impressive seen on the Coliseum stage, potent in its symbolism and ingenious in its layered integration of Auschwitz with a ship’s deck above.
Weinberg’s music is…distinctive…and while sharing some “Soviet common currency” with Shostakovich, he also makes remarkable use of quotations – above all, the Bach Chaconne with which the violinist Tadeusz seals his own fate. It is so well scored that every word of Pountney’s translation comes across here under the muscular baton of Richard Armstrong.
ENO’s large cast is led by the mezzo Michelle Breedt as Liese, rich of tone and deeply inside the ambiguous character. Giselle Allen gives a shining performance as Marta; Kim Begley and Leigh Melrose are strong as Walter and Tadeusz; and the important smaller parts are vividly handled.'
The Telegraph (John Allison), September 23, 2011
‘David Pountney's exceptional production, brought from the Bregenz Festival, moves fluently, as does the action of the opera itself, between ocean liner and death camp: the former gleaming white, the latter an unspeakably grim hellhole.
Much of the long first act recalls jagged Shostakovich, tender yet anguished Bartok and muscular Hindemith,… Act Two… adds new dimensions: neo-Romantic lyricism which together with jazz band music and Russian folksong creates a fractured but powerfully expressive synthesis.
The appearance onstage at the end of the 86-year-old Zofia Posmysz was as moving as anything in this searing, unmissable work.’
London Evening Standard (Barry Millington), September 20, 2011
'… music and drama come together to compelling effect. The solidarity of the female inmates, and their despair when several of their companions are selected for extermination, is truly stomach-churning, and the dramatic climax, when Tadeusz defies the camp commandant's order to play his favourite waltz and instead invokes the consoling strains of Bach's great Chaconne - confronting Germany at its most degraded with German art at its most exalted - is a shattering coup. It is at times like this that opera's synthesis of music and drama works its most powerful spell.'
The Sunday Times (Hugh Canning), September 25, 2011
'Everything about the history of The Passenger is extraordinary… As we re-enter the horrific past, Liese and her husband are forced to revaluate everything. The result, in Pountney’s highly charged, two-level staging, provides a bleak yet potent visual experience.
Weinberg’s score shows the influences of Shostakovich and Britten. It has moments of great impact, vividly brought out under conductor Richard Armstrong… the cast, led by Michelle Breedt’s tireless Liese and Giselle Allen’s committed Marta, give it their all. In the evening’s final extraordinary gesture, 88-year-old Posmysz herself is acclaimed at her curtain-call.’
The Stage (George Hall), Tuesday September 20, 2011
‘Johan Engel’s set design is brilliant…Weinberg's score is powerful and versatile, ranging from a convincing musical migraine when Annaliese sees Marta for the first time to a banal waltz epitomising the camp commandant's lack of musical taste.
The cast looked utterly drained at the end… thanks to their total commitment… If you are looking for a good evening's entertainment… a truly gripping, harrowing, emotional experience, The Passenger is just about as good as it gets.'
The Express(William Hartston), September 22, 2011
‘…an opera suppressed for almost half a century is about to command the stage for many years to come…Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 1968 work The Passenger is something very close to a masterpiece. Weinberg’s music is compelling and intensely his own…the score has Weinberg’s thumbprint as a watermark through and through. Harrowing as any Holocaust opera must be – and this is the ultimate Auschwitz opera – there is a plethora of rich and tender moments, along with plenty of human conundra. The Passenger is an opera that demands to be seen – more than once, if possible.'
Slippeddisc.com (Norman Lebrecht), September 2011
'The music is most effective when at its sparest, thinned down to single lines to support the declamatory voices. That's when Weinberg's close association with Shostakovich is most obvious.
… [Pountney's] production, in Johan Engels's fine split-level set – decks of the liner above, rail tracks of Auschwitz below – can't be faulted. Neither can the cast: Giselle Allen as Marta, Michelle Breedt as Lisa, with Leigh Melrose as Tadeusz and Kim Begley as Lisa's husband Walter, together with a superbly observed gallery of smaller roles.’
The Guardian (Andrew Clements), September 20, 2011
‘These people [Weinberg and Posmysz] have a right to write about [it]… And they have proved this through the intelligence and subtlety with which they have described something that they knew first hand. It’s quite different from someone deciding to write a new Auschwitz opera now… (The Passenger is) the most significant opera composed in the Russian language since Prokofiev’s War and Peace.'
The Independent (Jessica Duchen), September 16,2011
'It’s immensely powerful… the tautness of the writing and the pertinence of everything – Weinberg was a born theatrical composer. It’s astonishing, the gentleness of its message.'
Sir Richard Armstrong (conductor)
'Now… that the secret is truly out [following suppression by Stalin in the Soviet Union when it was written in 1968]… with English National Opera hosting the UK premiere, we can surely hope that its reputation will spread.
The opera meditates on living in – and surviving – Auschwitz, from the perspective of both oppressor and oppressed. When Walther learns of Liese’s past his first concern is for his reputation, while Liese’s own proclamations see guilt mixed with self-justification. In the camp we gain personal insights into the characters from numerous backgrounds whom the Nazis simply lumped together as undesirable or sub-human.
Michelle Breedt, Kim Begley and Giselle Allen excel as Liese, Walther and Marta, but the most intriguing aspect is Weinburg’s music itself. It is not quite minimalist or atonal, although those terms provide a general impression, and there are some ‘jazzed up’ moments and passages of searing beauty. It may not be the most accessible score for first time opera-goers, but you will not need to be any type of opera specialist to be bowled over by the potency, or won over by the sheer intensity, of The Passenger
Londonist (Sam Smith), September 21, 2011
'[David Pountney]… describes the opera as “incredibly powerful”. While the music has a “profound kind of melancholia”… Weinberg is acutely restrained in musical terms about the awful inevitability of the camp.
Shostakovich tried in vain to get The Passenger staged, writing that he would “never tire” of it: “It is a perfect masterpiece… The music… stirs the very soul… I understand this opera as a hymn to humanity”.’
The Observer ( Dalya Alberge), September 18, 2011
‘In a final scene… the two women, overseer and prisoner, are isolated on stage. “Do not forgive them, never, ever”, repeats Marta. One wondered what her creator, Zofia Posmysz, was thinking as she arrived on stage to a standing ovation.’
The Independent (Edward Seckerson), September 20, 2011
‘[ This opera]… works above all thanks to two superb lead performances and a host of telling ensemble contributions.
‘Holocaust opera with impeccable artistic credentials in first-class UK premiere’
A finer, more secure voice than Michelle Breedt's hasn't been heard at ENO.
Giselle Allen as Marta is ‘ strong enough to sustain the big memorial song Weinberg sets to bittersweet verses in Act 2, and the Brittenish epilogue, Marta's final quiet triumph many years later by the banks of a wide river, is as moving as it can be.
[There are many]… moving solos ‘in the women's barracks, realistic in the sense that prayers and ballads would indeed have been sung by the inmates to keep each other's spirits alive. Simple as the text by Weinberg's preferred librettist Alexander Medvedev may be, its reiteration here of the human wish to imagine freedom rings true.
…what a feat this was in mid-1960s Soviet life, and what a debt of honour to the family ghosts who presumably never gave Weinberg a moment's peace. ENO have done him, and Posmysz - whose novella still cries out for English translation - very proud indeed. Honour them in turn by going to see a genuine labour of love.’
The Arts Desk (David Nice), September 20, 2011
'Weinberg’s opera The Passenger has… jazz, dance hall, folksong, Brittenesque traceries[sic], punch-in-the-stomach volleys…
Thanks to the theatrical antennae of ENO’s conductor, Richard Armstrong, we can… respect Weinberg’s soulful music, and the casting is immaculate. Michelle Breedt’s Lisa makes a riveting pivot, the work of a true singing actor; Giselle Allen’s Marta wrenches the heart.'
Financial Times (Andrew Clark), September 20, 2011
'One of the most striking and effective opera sets I've ever seen, both framing the action and adding colour. Many details add emotional resonance: the pervasive railway tracks, or the follow spotlights operated by camp guards on watchtowers.
This is a music drama in which the music is distinctly subservient to the drama, and Mieczyslaw Weinberg's score has a huge amount to recommend it. Weinberg fled Nazi Poland to the USSR and became friends with Shostakovich, who greatly admired The Passenger. His style has a great deal in common with Shostakovich: it's equally mercurial, dragging in elements from a dozen different styles. It's also strong in providing melody and harmony in ways that are interesting and engaging to the ear without explicitly following the rules either of 19th century romanticism or 20th century atonality. I enjoyed many passages, but most of all, I was impressed by the sparse orchestration and how Weinberg ensures that every phrase enhances the stage action of its particular moment. At the climax of the opera, the music takes centre stage in an effect that hits you like a thunderbolt.
Director David Pountney draws acting performances of the highest quality from a large cast. The most outstanding of the singers were Kim Begley as Walter, whose voice was rich and powerful and whose characterisation totally believable, and Michelle Breedt as Anneliese, whose voice was continuously enjoyable and who gave a riveting exploration of character nuances. The role of Marta seems very challenging vocally, and although Giselle Allen dealt with it technically and gave an excellent acting performance.
Overall, this is an excellent production of a superb piece of drama and a fascinating, varied piece of music, which leaves you drained and emotionally wrung out. I think it would be a great work for lovers of theatre who don't necessarily see themselves as opera fans. Sadly, the opera was banned during Weinberg's lifetime, but it's a privilege to be able to see it now.’
Bachtrack (David Karlin), September 19, 2011
Staged Premiere Performances: July 21, 26, 28, 31, 2010
Bregenzer Festspiele, David Pountney, Director
The Vienna Symphony conducted by Teodor Currentzis
A forgotten opera about the Holocaust, penned by protagonists who experienced its horrors, is the astonishing find of this year’s Bregenz Festival.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-96), a Polish Jew who fled to Russia during the second world war, was effectively exiled twice: once when the Nazis forced him from his homeland, and again when the Soviet establishment rejected his music as conservative. Die Passagierin, Weinberg’s shatteringly intense 1968 opera, receives its first ever staging this summer in Bregenz.
Its story, the largely autobiographical narrative of survivor Zofia Posmysz, is grim and complex. Told largely from the perspective of perpetrator Lisa, an SS officer at Auschwitz, it is a tale of guilt and denial, of victim and oppressor, lies and truth, of fear, courage and love. Weinberg’s opera is superbly crafted. In style, his music recalls Shostakovich, though the reverse could also be true – the two composers were mutual admirers. Weinberg quotes effortlessly from Russian and Polish sacred music, jazz, Johann Strauss and Bach, borrowing descriptive elements to serve a story told with awful clarity.
Stage director David Pountney spent extensive time with Posmysz while devising a production that treads carefully between the literal and the figurative. As the production shifts from past to present, Johan Engels’ set moves us between the white upper deck of the cruise ship on which Lisa re-encounters former prisoner Martha to the grey horrors of Auschwitz below. They are images we know, but Pountney and his team steer just clear of pathos, helped by Weinberg’s ineluctable music and a superb cast. On the podium, Teodor Currentzis is a force of nature, emanating both wild energy and ferocious organisational skill. He can drive and structure, but he also gives the poignant moments room to breathe.
That Die Passagierin had to wait so long to see the light of day is tragic. Two days before his death, Weinberg told librettist Alexander Medwedew that he regretted never having heard his opera. To comfort him, Medwedew promised to listen twice as hard to the premiere – once for himself, once for the composer.
Medwedew was too ill to attend last weekend’s premiere. He died on Monday. The onus is on us to listen now for both of them. (*****)
Financial Times (Shirley Apthorp),
July 27 2010
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A Bright Ocean Liner Deck Above, A Grey Hell Below
Bregenzer Festspiele: David Pountney directs Mieczylaw Weinberg’s
Masterpiece “The Passenger”
What a find! The Bregenzer Festspiele, with its stage on the lake still perceived by many to be the quintessence of the elaborate opera experience – by the way, an already obsolete impression – discovers a 42-year-old opera of grandiose power, sweep and completely unique beauty and brings it to the stage in truly consummate manner. That sounds almost like a miracle – but it’s really just the result of hard work.
The opera is titled “The Passenger”, two-thirds of it is set in Auschwitz, Miecyslaw Weinberg composed it, completed the score in 1968, died in 1996; the concert premiere of the work took place in Moscow in 2006. The Bregenzer premiere under the direction of festival director David Pountney marks the first staged performance of the opera, fortunately an international co-production, which will be seen during the next years in London and Madrid.
The libretto for the opera was written by Alexander Medvedev and based on the novel of the same name by Zofia Posmysz. Posmysz, a native of Krakow, spent three years of her life in the Nazi horror factories of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbrück. She survived. For the final applause, David Pountney brought her on stage. The entire audience in the Festspielhaus rose to its feet as if wanting to affirm the core message of the novel and the opera: “If the echoes of their voices fade away, then we too will perish.” Neither Weinberg nor Posmysz are interested in the mere representation of horror. As present as the reality of the concentration camps may be in both of the works: it is about putting a stop to forgetting, about addressing the lies about forgetting.
The opera begins, as does the short story, on an ocean liner. Lisa is traveling with her husband Walter, a German diplomat, to Brazil. On deck, she encounters a woman who, with her silent presence, immediately causes cracks to appear in the well-polished surface of Lisa’s life. These fissures become abysses: Lisa was a warden at Auschwitz and the mysterious woman, Martha, was a prisoner there. Walter worries about his career – his own biography, as described with clear ambivalence by Posmysz, his circumvention of the SS by volunteering for service in the army, is not relevant for the opera. Lisa wanted to make Martha a helper in the camp, a tool of her power, beguiled her, allowed a meeting between Martha and her likewise imprisoned lover Tadeusz and sent the two of them to their deaths when they saw through the artifice of her supposed friendliness.
But Martha survived. On the ship, Lisa wants absolution from her. But the encounter becomes a descent into the hell of her own repressed deeds. David Pountney researched this theme for many years. He traveled with Posmysz to Birkenau, he traveled with her to Israel and Moscow and examined Weinberg’s music; this year’s edition of the Bregenzer Festspiele is exclusively dedicated to a composer who is almost unknown here, with concerts and another Weinberg opera, the satire “The Portrait”. Such substantial commitment is nothing new in Bregenz; last year, for example, Pountney staged Szymanowski’s “King Roger” at the Festspielhaus.
The novel already has music in it. Posmysz herself experienced such cynical contrivances as the women’s orchestra in Auschwitz. In the hell of death, she heard popular hits by Kreuder and Mackeben. Her Tadeusz is an artist. He is supposed to perform a waltz in front of the camp commander: “Play as if before God, the Lord. You will be meeting him soon”, says the SS-man in the opera. But no waltz. Instead, the Chaconne by Bach. German music. He is beaten to death, the violin is destroyed.
The effect of this scene cannot be described in words. Weinberg does not set any text here, he leaves the music in peace. The strings in the orchestra take up the Chaconne, the sound of this magnificent music fills the entire space. One of the many moments in this opera that are simply transcendent. Although Weinberg developed broad sections of the score directly from the vocal lines, although he can write so perfectly for the singing voice that one has the impression that he knew the cast of this premiere when he composed the opera, this music is much more. The incredibly nuanced precision of the text setting provides the foundation upon which everything is possible and nothing is gratuitous: the grim waltzes, sometimes strongly reminiscent of Shostakovich’s “Jazz Suites”, as much as the sleazy dance music on the ship; the heart-wrenching folk songs when the doomed, imprisoned women recall their homeland, as much as a love duet between Martha and Tadeusz that brings tears to one’s eyes. “Play for me”, she once asked in happier times, when they found themselves in a village church. He must play again in the camp. For the last time.
Weinberg fled twice from the Nazis, in 1939 from Warsaw to Minsk, and in 1941 from there to the Uzbekian capital Tashkent. In 1943, he finally settled in Moscow, became a friend of Dmitri Shostakovich who also took a stand for him when Weinberg was imprisoned during the heyday of Stalinist madness. It was Stalin’s death that finally saved him and from the end of the 1950s on, Weinberg experienced two decades of flourishing creative activity. He wrote seven operas, 26 symphonies, 17 string quartets, ballet music and many other works; very little of these were expressly political. He was widely performed by the most important Russian instrumentalists and orchestras. And yet, during the 1980s he was considered outmoded (a similar thing happened to Shostakovich); he was no Schnittke and no Gubaidulina, he was forgotten, like his opera “The Passenger” before it was ever performed. And since he was unknown outside of the Soviet Union, he was soon forgotten.
This opera does in fact sound older than it is. And what of it? It reminds one of Shostakovich and also of Britten. The scenes on the ocean liner are bathed in iridescent sounds in which the imbalance, the abyss is already inherent. These sounds return again in the camp, in completely ther colors, gloomy and pallid. Waltzes go out of step, now and again a twelve-tone row falls apart, moments reminiscent of film music arise – Weinberg had experience here too. This music is present every single second, always eloquent, but never superficially sensational; it is subtle, just like Weinberg’s purely instrumental music. When the text is important to him, the music is silent. And one understands every word, even though a cosmopolitan polyglot is sung in the camp. The music etches each word into the mind of the listener, the effect is oppressive, at once psychosomatic. This opera is a masterpiece. And David Pountney bows before it.
Above is the bright ocean liner deck, below, the grey hell, with rails and wagons where the prisoners are housed. Both levels are separated from one another only by the lighting, there are constant correspondences; the past, only apparently underground, comes to the surface again very quickly. Pountney creates real, coherent theater, all of the soloists are a dream, conductor Teodor Currentzis leads the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in a superb performance.
After it ends, long silence. Only then do the first members of the audience find the courage to applaud. It almost seems to be a sacrilege. But it is a liberation.
Süddeutsche Zeitung (Egbert Tholl) July 23, 2010
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Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, July 23, 2010, by Eleonore Büning
I Live, You Live, She Lives
Magnificent, Riveting: Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera “The Passenger” about an Auschwitz survivor is triumphantly rediscovered at the Bregenzer Festspiele Bregenz, July 22nd
All at once, everyone rises from their places: a collective gesture full of empathy and earnestness, emotion and bewilderment. Rarely has such a unity of emotion been experienced in an opera house. Who is the applause for? The fantastic singers? Or the survivor from the concentration camp? The boundaries between art and reality are blurred here in one emotionally charged moment.
It is that moment, namely, when, the frail, auratic figure of the Polish writer Zofia Posmysz appears on stage at the Festspielhaus in Bregenz: eighty-six years old, she is carefully ushered over the gravel of the train tracks by director and intendant David Pountney. As she takes a bow there and encounters herself in her tangible likeness, the opera figure Martha, the old question comes up again, which, ever since the first American television series on the Holocaust, has never really been silenced: Can the hell of Auschwitz be so artistically transformed, beautified and reduced, that it fits into an opera evening, with arias, solos, contemplative ensembles and freedom choirs?
David Pountney and his stage team answer this question with a clear “yes”. They have taken on the venture of bringing this first opera by the as yet widely unknown Polish-Russian composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg to the big stage to open the Festspiele: “The Passenger”, based on a novel by Posmysz, as a fully staged premiere. The concertante performance took place three years ago in Moscow; “The Passenger” received its first performance in 1969, but only in excerpts on the piano: Weinberg himself played it in front of the Soviet Composers Association, whereupon his friend and neighbor Shostakovich enthusiastically proclaimed that this music contains “not a single hollow, irrelevant note”. It can now be experienced in Bregenz.
There is much that is reminiscent of Shostakovich, consistent with the idioms of that time, as, for example, the jazz passages, the multiple rhythms, the ironic sound painting, the atonality, the tonality used like a quotation-wielding musical language, the folklore implants and the big orchestral espressivo. Weinberg, as a Polish Jew and refugee, outcast in Moscow and living in a parallel world, had kept himself above water for a time with film music. And in the isolation, he developed a very strongly pronounced personal style. His music is lyrical, each dictate is developed from the linearity of the human singing voice. The Vienna Symphonic perform under the fiery direction of Teodor Currentzis as if life depended upon it.
The vocal parts were created to be sung, though they are not always rhythmically easy. The piece is strictly constructed; the rapid succession of short scenes generates a forward drive. And although it starts off noisily with a percussion attack in quintuplets and triplets, it is, in fact, the quiet and economy of a chamber piece that unexpectedly predominates.
On an ocean liner, the former SS warden Anneliese Franz (Michelle Breedt) on the way to Brazil with her husband, the West German diplomat Walter (Roberto Sacca), is getting herself ready for the tea dance. Fresh jazz colors accentuate the dialog, sparingly and contrapuntally orchestrated. When a mysterious fellow passenger turns up who is the spitting image of the concentration camp prisoner Martha, the happy façade of the marriage is shattered: now Anneliese is confessing on her knees before him, he rants and is only thinking of his career. A trenchant wickedness reminiscent of Weill undermines the conversation, and when the steward appears and explains that the mysterious person is just a harmless British woman, the married couple heaves a sigh of relief and the orchestra breaks into two lush major chords, quoting the beginning of “Rule Britannia”.
But it is she: Martha is not just the Martha who survived Auschwitz. She is also Zofia Posmysz – just as there really was a warden in Auschwitz named Anneliese Franz. This opera has something unbearably bitter about it, while at the same time, something unbearably sweet. Bitter is the laconic way in which the libretto and music capture how the perpetrator carelessly talks in circles, doesn’t comprehend why she should be guilty. Unbearably beautiful are the ensemble scenes in the camp, opening up into infinity, when the women dream of a better life. Many different languages are sung, Russian, Polish, English, German, French. Each one has her own individual color. The partisan Katia (Svetlana Doneva) rhapsodizes about the vastness of her homeland, Krysztina (Angelica Voye) of real work, and, for her birthday, Martha wishes that she will be able to die peacefully in the sunshine (to verses by Sandor Petöfi). And young Yvette (Talia Or) gives old Bronka language instruction because, of course, they will soon be free and will then want to travel to Paris: “Je vis” (I live), “tu vis” (you live), “elle vit” (she lives). This is accompanied by comical pizzicati from the orchestra. And the winds flourish gloriously in the second act when Martha secretly meets her lover Tadeusz for a love duet.
It is good that Pountney’s production strictly adheres to the indications in the score. Simple changes of lighting accompany the leaps in time, the spotlights are operated by uniformed SSmen. The luxury ocean liner world is snow white and sits like an absurd hat creation on top of the camp misery, which is depicted as realistically as possible by stage designer Johan Engels: with the oven doors of the crematorium from which human ashes are shoveled out, with the naked walls, the wooden bunk beds and the train tracks that end at the edge of the stage.
That is where Martha, alias Posmysz, sits at the end, the survivor, and sings her epilogue: one of these typical Weinbergian, sweeping, rhythmically condensed, fragile melodic lines, accompanied by a murmuring in the orchestra that trickles away. “I will never ever forget you!”, she sings. And: “No forgiveness, never.” One can only endure this by virtue of the power of the music.
It is, then, possible. Approximately fifty-two musical works on the Holocaust have been
counted by the musicologist Ben Arnold, ranging from Schönberg’s “A Survivor from
Warsaw” to Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”. In the new issue of the magazine “Osteuropa” dedicated to Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Antonina Klokova adds another dozen. It may be that “The Passenger” is not the first Auschwitz opera at all – but it is a masterpiece. Why did it take so long for anyone to notice?
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Eleonore Büning), July 23, 2010
Translations: Laurie Schwartz
Synopsis of "The Passenger"
Scene 1: "Ship"
A ship crosses the ocean headed for Brazil. On board, Walter and Lisa Kretschmer, a couple who have been married for 15 years. They are standing on the deck, enjoying the view, talk of their love for one another and that they are, so to speak, on their second honeymoon. A steward serves drinks and invites them to the dance. Lisa suddenly notices a lonely looking woman at the railing and is deeply shocked. She seems to know her.
Flashback: Stage, Lower Level. Auschwitz is visible. Lisa (Miss Franz), in SS-Uniform, is standing before the female head guard and pledging obedience.
On the boat: Lisa says she has a headache and runs to her cabin. Excitedly, she asks herself if this unknown person could be Martha, who should in fact be dead, and whether she was recognized. She rings for the steward and bribes him to find out who the woman is and where she is traveling to. Walter comes into the cabin and convinces Lisa to come with him to the dance. In the corridor, they run into the unknown woman. Frightened and in panic, Lisa drags her husband back into the cabin. He demands an explanation for Lisa’s strange behavior. It comes out that Lisa was with the SS and in Auschwitz. Walter is appalled, afraid of scandal and sees his career as a diplomat falling apart before he even arrives at his appointment in Brazil. Lisa tries to explain that she believed in the Führer and was only following orders and that she was forced into duty at Auschwitz. Martha was a Polish prisoner who she had secretly helped, but Martha was proud and full of hate. She was put in the death block, which she probably shouldn’t have survived. The steward comes to say that the woman is a British citizen on a trip to Brazil. Lisa and Walter are relieved and go out on deck. The unknown woman is standing again in the same place at the railing.
Scene 2: "Roll Call"
Stage, Lower Level. A square in Auschwitz. All around are barracks, watchtowers, concrete posts, spotlights, barbed wire… Morning roll call of the prisoners, the guards shout out the numbers. Off to the side, a group of SS men talk about the depressing life in the camp which, however, is still better than the Eastern Front, about the problems of disposing the 20,000 corpses every day, the number of which is still too low. Lisa and Martha appear – as guard and prisoner. Lisa is complimented for her appearance and praised for her work. She explains her success as owing to the fact that she has found a confidante among the prisoners, Martha, a Pole. Martha does not know if she can trust the woman; she feels spied on, but also well treated.
Scene 3: "Barracks"
The women are returning from work. A group of new arrivals is crowded at the entrance. An old woman who has gone insane frightens the unsuspecting new prisoners, Christians and Jews from cities all over Europe. Sitting on their plank beds the women talk of their fears and hopes, whether they feel closer each day to freedom or the grave; they make dates to see each other after the war; Martha dreams of escaping…
In a corner, Bronka prays for the well-being of her four children and that the perpetrators be punished. While Krzystina has lost her belief in God, Ivette encourages Bronka: God will hear her beautiful prayer. Questions remain unanswered: Why did Christ forgive his tormentors, can one forgive murderers, do the Germans have a God?
Suddenly, the door bursts open, Katja, a Russian woman, is thrown inside and onto the floor. Lisa stands to the side and observes the goings-on. All of the prisoners want to help Katja, bring her water, calm her down, but she only cries out that she will never surrender. A Kapo gloats in front of Lisa that she has discovered a note. Lisa looks for Martha and orders her to read aloud what is written on the note: It is a harmless love letter to Tadeusz that talks of the pain of separation and the hope of seeing him again soon. On a screen, the coded message is blended in: “the report has been sent….waiting for contact…”
Lisa seizes the note and orders jail for Katja beginning the next day. Quiet returns to the barracks again. Katja and Martha talk about the successful transmission of the message.
The deck of the ship is blended in, Walter lies on a chaise lounge. Lisa is standing at the front of the stage and looks up at him: she explains to him how Martha and all of the others hated her and what deep anguish this caused her. But Walter does not react.
Scene 4: "Storehouse"
Morning. In the storehouse of the camp. Mountains of suitcases, pieces of furniture, musical instruments, baby carriages, clothing, shoes. Prisoners from the women’s barracks are sorting things. Lisa oversees the work. Her conversation with an SS-man can be heard over the loudspeaker: he is supposed to procure the best violin he can find for his Commandant; there is a famous violinist in his troop who is supposed to practice and perform the Commandant’s favorite waltz before he goes up in smoke… Lisa gives him a violin case with a valuable violin, but the SS-man wants to send the musician himself to pick up the violin.
Tadeusz arrives and stands at attention before Lisa. Martha recognizes her fiancé, who she hasn’t seen in two years, and freezes. Tadeusz, too, stands as if petrified. Lisa notices this, points to the violin and leaves. Martha and Tadeusz fall into each other’s arms: declarations of love, kisses follow… He tells her that he came to pick up the violin because he is supposed to play a waltz at a concert. Again, caresses, compliments, memories: how they were once in a dark, empty church and she wanted him to play something on the organ as if it were their wedding…
Suddenly Lisa reappears. Tadeusz and Martha have to admit to her that they are engaged to one another. Lisa, acting friendly, offers to close an eye, as an exception, and allow them a rendezvous; another guard would have put the two in jail. Lisa, asking for appreciation and gratitude, pulls the note out of her pocket and rips it up: the secret will remain a secret…
Katja appears, sees Tadeusz and Martha, runs to them and warns them to watch out for Guard Franz: she is underhanded, lets others do the killing…
Finally, the waltz of the Commandant “the great music connoisseur” can be heard.
Scene 5: "Workshop"
Day. Small room in the men’s barracks, a kind of carpentry or engraving workshop. On the walls, silver plates, on the table, blocks of wood. Tadeusz reads a note. On the screen, the text appears: “Your report was received in Krakow in time. We thank you for the valuable information. Know this: Kiev has been liberated! Hang in there, friends, and be careful!”
Footsteps. Tadeusz hides the note in a hurry. Lisa enters, looks through the sketches, inspects the different work and involves Tadeusz in conversation. On a small medal, she recognizes Martha, the “Madonna of the Camp”, as she calls her, though without any hair… “it could grow again, could…” She asks Tadeusz why he doesn’t try to meet with her. He says that he doesn’t want to take the chance of her being beaten because of him. Lisa offers once again to help them arrange a rendezvous, but Tadeusz refuses: He won’t go, because he doesn’t need any favors from her. Lisa is offended.
The ship’s deck is blended in, Walter on the chaise lounge. Lisa shouts to him that Tadeusz didn’t want to accept her favor even though he knew of his imminent end; they were simply blind with hate! Walter does not react.
Scene 6: "Barracks" Evening. In the barracks. Martha’s birthday is celebrated by a group of women. She has a bouquet of flowers in her hand. Everyone is in a happy mood, she is congratulated and cheered by a chorus of well wishers.
Martha sings a Polish folksong about two death fantasies: If God permits, she would like to die in the golden autumn, in gentleness and silence, just as the sun sinks in a golden haze without leaving any traces, that the little bird sings her a farewell song and that she herself sings a final song that reaches to the bottom of the heart and to the highest summits of the heavens. Then her beloved will close her lips with a kiss. If God does not permit this, then she would like to die in the spring, at war, at an hour when red roses bloom in the hearts of the brave and bugles sound as warlike nightingales, then death would arise from her heart as a blood-soaked, purple flower and the beautiful freedom would close her lips with a kiss.
The friends encourage one another and give Martha small presents: a carrot, an onion, a scarf. Suddenly, Guard Lisa interrupts the gathering and calls Martha to come to her. She tries to hurt Martha by telling her that Tadeusz does not want to see her even though she had offered him a rendezvous. Martha understands Tadeusz’s reasons, which annoys Lisa even more. She threatens consequences.
Bronk practices French with Ivette, in particular the conjugation of the verb “to live”. The others dream about what they want to do after the war: work, study, marry, have fun…
Katja is asked to tell about Russia. She sings a song that her grandmother always sang: about a faraway valley where nothing grew, no mushrooms, no berries, no black currants; only a small green grove behind which the red sky of the dawn and the sun came forth…
Suddenly, prisoners’ numbers are called out over the loudspeakers. The Kapo and Lisa force Vlasta, Hannah, Katja and Ivette out the door where SS-men are standing with machine guns. Katja yells out: “Don’t forget me! And never forgive them!” Martha wants to join, i.e., stop her friends, but is brutally shoved back: There is no hurry for her death. She is to be punished for her offence and put in the death block, but first she is to go to the concert and hear Tadeusz play…
Krystina asks Bronka to pray for them all. Only the small candle is lit. Bronka tries to pray and closes with the words “…if You exist…” Then, she resolutely blows out the candle. Complete darkness.
Scene 7: "Ship"
Lisa appears on deck where Walter is lying on the chaise lounge. She embraces him from behind. He would like to go to the dance with her, but she doesn’t know if she should go. The steward appears and reports that the woman they inquired about does have English citizenship but is apparently not British since she reads books in Polish. Walter becomes upset again: They are in the hands of this passenger…Both hurry to their cabin. Lisa understands how Walter can feel his career being threatened, but not why he is still tormenting her with questions. She was in Auschwitz, but not as a criminal, rather as an honest German and that is something she is proud of. She is not afraid of any court of law, of any judgment, only of his…The main thing is that he stay with her. Walter shows understanding; one has the right to forget the war and the past. Both calm down and prepare for the dance. Lisa would like to be the most beautiful of all. Walter wonders how they should behave with the passenger. Lisa doesn’t care about anything else, the main thing is that he is with her.
In the ballroom of the ship. On stage, a small orchestra. The passengers are sitting at tables, some are dancing. Lisa dances with the captain. Walter stands at the bar and watches his wife admiringly. An older gentleman steps up, makes a compliment about Lisa and requests a waltz. Walter says that he himself has to be patient, that the man may dance with her after Walter. Lisa, clearly enjoying the evening returns; Walter asks her for the next dance, while, in the distance, the passenger appears, goes over to the orchestra and discusses something with the conductor. Lisa freezes as the orchestra begins to play. It is the waltz of the Commandant in Auschwitz. Lisa loses her composure because now she knows that Martha has recognized her and deliberately requested this “waltz from hell”. Walter tries to keep things under control, but by now everyone is looking at the couple. Veering around the tables, Lisa rushes up to Martha to hear a word of gratitude from her for having survived and being able to dance here… In the middle of the room, she stops; now Martha is coming closer…, Lisa shrinks back to the edge of the deck.
The stairway that leads below is blended in. Martha forces Lisa once more back into the past.
Scene 8: "Concert"
Bathhouse of the camp. Everything is ready for the concert. To the left, slightly elevated, the prisoners’ orchestra. Sitting before the musicians are SS-men and guards. Behind them, to the right, are the prisoners standing in rank and file, men and women separated. When the Commandant enters, all stand up and salute. Tadeusz enters with the violin. He is ordered to play as if he were playing before God, the One he will soon be seeing… While he is playing, first Martha and then he, too, is illuminated by a spotlight that becomes increasingly brighter. (The melody of the waltz segues into a Bach chaconne.) Lisa appears out of the darkness and looks at Martha. Commotion in the room. The Commandant jumps up and gives an order. An SS-man tears the violin away from Tadeusz and destroys it. The lights go out. In a stream of light, one sees Martha alone in the darkness walking back and forth. The choir again sings the song of the black wall, of blood that doesn’t go cold, of the quiet steps of death, of the distant screams and the death bell…
Epilogue: Morning. The bank of a large river. Martha is sitting on a rock near the water. She is enjoying the quiet and the peace and the fact that she is one again with her river. All of her friends are with her, all hearts, every smile, every love in her. “I know, I know: If your… your voices die away, we will perish. I still hear: ‘And never forgive them!’ ” Martha remembers all fellow prisoners and Tadeusz. She will never forget them.
– Per Skans