MIECZSLAW WEINBERG: The Passenger (complete opera), Blu-ray(2010)

by | Apr 4, 2011 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

MIECZSLAW WEINBERG: The Passenger (complete opera), Blu-ray(2010)

Performers: Michelle Breedt, mezzo-soprano/Roberto Sacca, tenor/Elena Kelessidi, soprano/Artur Rucinski, baritone/ensemble/ Wiener Symphoniker/ Prague Philharmonic Choir/ Teodor Currentzis
Live: Neos 51005 [Distr. by Qualiton]
Video: 16:9 Color 1080i HD
Audio: German/English/French/Russian/Yiddish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 (Extras: Stereo 2.0)
Subtitles: English
Extras: Austrian documentary film, "In der Fremde;" Interviews with creators & cast members
Length: 190 minutes
Rating: ****

Mieczslaw Weinberg is a fascinating composer, unjustly neglected. He was of Polish-Jewish heritage. He worked as a very talented violinist at the Warsaw Conservatory being promoted by Karol Szymanowski, among others. Weinberg had to escape the Nazi pillage of his country on foot and emigrated to Russia. In Russia, he established himself as a conductor and violinist in Uzbekistan and, later, at the invitation of a good friend, at the Moscow Conservatory.  Weinberg developed a close and very artistically rewarding relationship with Shostakovich. Shostakovich introduced Weinberg to many of the most influential people in Moscow and many of the most arts friendly communities.  Both men had to experience firsthand the anti-Semitic purge of Josef Stalin, however, and ended up taking separate paths.  Shostakovich found some fame and a modicum of peace in Europe and America, while Weinberg went essentially out of the limelight altogether, eventually joining the Russian Orthodox church before dying of digestive failure as recently as 1996. Weinberg lost many relatives during the war at the hand of Hitler, including his parents. His opera The Passenger may be his most personal and heartfelt artistic response to this horrible period in history.

The storyline in this opera is fairly simple yet certainly leaves an emotional impact. We learn quite early in the narrative that Lisa (Michelle Breedt) and her husband, Walter (Roberto Sacca) are on an ocean liner headed for Brazil for a vacation. Lisa has a startling glimpse of the passenger (of the title) who may or may not be someone from Lisa’s secret past. Lisa is so troubled by the possibility that she may be recognized by this stranger that she breaks down and confesses to Walter that she was a women’s guard at Auschwitz, working for the Nazi SS. Walter is stunned and a bit angered as he is trying to build a career as a diplomat for the post-World War II German government. As the story progresses we do learn who “the passenger” is – Marta, from Auschwitz, under Lisa’s watch some fifteen years ago. There are a couple of interesting little side moments that require a cabin steward to report back to Lisa and Walter at least where this passenger is from. Lisa eventually learns the truth but is never really confronted by Marta.

The real emotion in this piece, however, is in the flashback scenes that show life in the women’s compound at Auschwitz. Lisa’s character is intriguing and conflicted. She seems capable of genuinely random, covert acts of kindness one moment and truly strident, vindictive and capable of cruel manipulation the next. Some of the most musically and visually stunning moments are found in the words and thoughts of the prisoners. The actors are seen in the familiar striped concentration camp garb with shaved heads, bruised and cut and, most, adorned with the hate-inspired Star of David patch.

Weinberg’s music owes something to Shostakovich in places; it can be sarcastic and strident yet, it can also be tender and heart wrenching. Marta’s long, moving and plaintive scene six monologue, “If the Lord God summoned me…” is enough to make the viewer stop everything and just listen affixed.

There are many such scenes and many of the opera’s “minor” characters play a major part in establishing mood and tone. Artur Rucinksi, as Marta’s beloved, Tadeusz, has some fine moments of simple strength and what proves to be a final act of defiance, wherein he is commanded to use his violin talent to play a waltz for the camp Kommandant but chooses to perform the Bach Chaconne instead. We learn at the end of the piece that Lisa did survive, was on the cruise ship, but there is no big confrontation scene between her and Lisa. This is on so many levels a storyline about women. The “confrontation” is within Lisa herself. As a young woman employed by the Reichstag should she be compassionate or should she model the bigotry and hate that created the conditions? Should she confront Marta or try desperately to hide from her?  Should she beg for her new husband’s forgiveness or pretend all is well?
What makes this a stunning experience is knowing that Alexander Medvedev’s libretto is based on a novel by Zofia Posmysz who was, herself, a prisoner at Auschwitz and did survive beyond the camp and did lose a boyfriend in the war.

Weinberg’s opera is extolled by Shostakovich in the well done program book and is acknowledged to be “controversial”.   In part, it is certainly disconcerting to see anything having to do with the Holocaust turned into opera, including singing Nazi officers. There are few operas ever written that go near the topic. Viktor Ullman’s “Kaiser of the Atlantis” is basically a sarcastic parody on Hitler. David Amram wrote “The Final Ingredient” which I have not heard and Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead” addresses imprisonment itself. Weinberg and Medvedev get emotional impact from the words and the music and the stark juxtaposition of the dark, dirty, horrible past with the inward, psychological terror of the present.

The performances here are excellent. The principal singers are all wonderful, most notably Breedt and Kelessidi in the two main female roles. Roberto Sacca as Walter and Artur Rucinski are also very fine; the former exuding self-protective interests and the latter clearly obsessed with a greater cause.

The production and set design are excellent and all forces under Teodor Currentzis’ direction are quite good. The sight and sound on the Blu-ray disc are of high quality. The packaging itself is excellent. The Bregenz Festival, where this production occurred, has a well-deserved reputation for the unusual and captivating and the Neos line, under Unitel, has other modern masterworks that look quite promising.

“The Passenger” is an intense experience based on one of the world’s darkest chapters but Zofia Posmysz and Mieczslaw Weinberg have created a story and an operatic experience where this is some hope after the horror and some unanswered questions about the nature of forgiveness and redemption.  I highly recommend this and suggest that any listener go explore more of Weinberg’s music.

— Daniel Coombs

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