Houston Grand Opera’s 2013-14 season is notable for the introduction to North America of two ambitious projects.
The most ambitious effort, scheduled for April 2014 is the first set of a collaborative venture in mounting Wagner’s four opera “Ring of the Nibelungs” with Valencia, Spain’s Fura dels Baus. One opera a year will be introduced to Houston, completing the “Ring” in 2017.
The other project, the subject of this review, is the mounting in January 2014 of the first North American performances of Mierczyslaw Weinberg’s mid-20th century opera, “The Passenger” in a production created by David Pountney (who, himself, is planning a new production of the “Ring of the Nibelungs” for Lyric Opera of Chicago, which will commence in 2018).
[Below: Production designer David Pountney; edited image, based on a promotional photograph from IMG Artists.]
Weinberg, a Polish Jew who escaped capture by the Nazis in 1939 by fleeing to Russia, became a close friend of the composer Shostakovich, and had a successful career as a composer in Russia in the mid-century Cold War period. The subject matter of the opera was not a priority of the Russian Communist state, and “The Passenger”, completed in 1968, was unperformed in the first four decades of its existence until its world premiere, 42 years later, in Bregenz, Austria,
I attended the third of five scheduled Houston Grand Opera performances of Weinberg’s opera.
What “The Passenger” is About
“The Passenger” is a complex opera, that the staging of David Pountney and brilliant sets of South African designer Johan Engels do much to clarify. I would like to suggest, however, that the way that the opera’s libretto (by Alexander Medvedev, translated by Pountney into English) has been constructed, it would be well to think of it as two stories or even two separate operas that have been joined together.
The elements that have been merged are the story of the German diplomat and his wife traveling on a ocean liner to Brazil, and the story of Marta, a Polish Catholic sentenced to Auschwitz for suspected anti-Nazi activities.
Marta’s “story” consists of her friendships with other condemned women prisoners, and Marta’s separation from and brief reuniting with her fiance Tadeusz, who has been imprisoned elsewhere in Auschwitz.
The ocean liner and Auschwitz stories are bound together by the fact that one of the Auschwitz women prison overseers became the German diplomat’s wife, deceiving him about her past and even her age. Her husband believed her story that she had been a teenager during the war and was innocent of any of the horrors of Germany’s Nazi past.
Her deception (and change of name) worked. While her Auschwitz staff colleagues had been hunted down and imprisoned or executed, the couple moved in the official circles of de-Nazified postwar Germany.
The opera’s first element proved to be an absorbing, intellectually challenging, psychological study of Liese (sung by South African mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt).
[Below: Liese (Michelle Breedt, right) surprises and dismays her diplomat husband, Walter (Joseph Kaiser, left) with the information that she was an SS guard at the Auschwitz women’s prison; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Over the course of the opera’s three hours, we learn how Liese had become obsessed with the relationships between Marta, other women in the Auschwitz prison, and Marta’s fiancé, Tadeusz (sung by baritone Morgan Smith).
Liese becomes increasingly hysterical about the possibility that somehow Marta had escaped execution. Liese confessed to her shocked husband, that she had been an SS guard. Walter instantly recognizes the threat, not only to his ambassadorship to Brazil, but to his diplomatic career, should it become known that he was married to an Auschwitz prison overseer.
[Below: Liese (Michelle Breedt, midway down staircase) becomes hysterical at the sight of a Polish woman whom she has taken for Marta (Melody Moore, on top of stairs); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
It may not ultimately matter whether Liese knows for certain that Marta was killed, or for certain that she survived, or was unsure, but the psychological effect of Liese being reminded of her sordid past creates a hysterical reaction. It is Liese’s hysteria, rather than her ultimate fate, that is the subject of this part of the opera.
The Prisoners’ Stories: Marta, the Other Women and Tadeusz
The second story line is that of Marta’s friendships with and consolation of the other women prisoners. These include the Russian Katya (sung by American soprano Kelly Kaduce), the French Yvette (sung by Ukrainian soprano Uliana Alexyuk), Bronka (sung by American mezzo-soprano Kathryn Day), Hannah (sung by Polish mezzo-soprano Agnieszka Rehlis), Krystyna (Sung by British soprano Natalya Romaniw), and the Old Woman (sung by American mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood).
[Below: the condemned Auschwitz women bond with one another; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Even as their numbers are reduced by the periodic collection of women for extermination, encouraged by Marta’s stoicism in the face of death, they hope and plan their future lives. Liese senses that she would have an advantage in having Marta on her side, helping her keep the other prisoners docile.
In time Liese comes upon the information that a male Polish prisoner, Tadeusz, who is a violinist, has been asked to play a particular waltz for the company commandant, and has been sent to the women’s prison to look for a violin among the confiscated possessions of the condemned prisoners. She discovers that he is Marta’s fiancé
Armed with the information of the relationship between Marta and Tadeusz, Liese attempts to engage in personal conversations with each of them, but is rebuffed by them both. Tadeusz disobeys the SS commandant and plays music of Bach (a revered German composer, whom no Auschwitz prisoner would be allowed to play) instead of the waltz, which seals his doom. Liese tries to further manipulate Marta with information about Tadeusz’ execution, but Marta remains stoic.
[Below: the prisoner Marta (Melody Moore, left) shows no interest in personal attention from the SS guard Liese (Michelle Breedt, right); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The opera ends with Marta reminiscing about her friends among the other women prisoners with the admonition that we who knew them hold our memories of them, because as long as they are remembered, their existence will not disappear.
Scene Changes Between the Ocean Liner and Auschwitz’s Women’s Prison
The very different worlds of the Ocean Liner and the Women’s Prison are bridged through the’ ingenious sets of Johan Engels, whose Houston Grand Opera debut occurred with sets for the opera company’s most recent performances of Verdi’s “Don Carlos” [See Brandon Jovanovich Triumphant in Historic “Don Carlos” Production – Houston Grand Opera, April 13, 2012.]
Engels created a multi-layered set in which the cabin main deck and the diplomat’s stateroom occur at the top of the set, while the scenes of Auschwitz at the bottom, at stage level. A train’s boxcar is wheeled in on tracks which contains the racks in which the condemned women sleep. By means of changes in lighting (by French lighting designer Fabrice Kebour), our point of view moves between the ocean liner and the prison.
[Below: Johan Engels set for “The Passenger” with the ocean liner deck above and the Auschwitz prison below; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The Musical Performance
Music director Patrick Summers conducted the complex score with authority. The cast he assembled for the Houston performances was a strong one, with memorable performances by Breedt as Liese, Joseph Kaiser as Walter and Morgan Smith as Tadeusz.
However, it was Melody Moore in the title role of the Passenger, who stunningly performed a role notable for its long emotionally wrenching passages of demanding tessitura.
[Below: Marta (Melody Moore, front left) sings of the need to remember those who were lost at Auschwitz as Liese (Michelle Breedt, right rear) listens; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
We are in a period in which only a small part of the opera going public has yet had a chance to experience the work. There is much to admire, and it is helped by the intelligent production of Pountney and Engels.
I suspect that this will never become a favorite of much of the opera-going public, but, those who experience it, and especially those who study it and reflect upon its message that we should not forget those who were lost, should find it to be worth the time and effort.
I recommend it.