Long before I walked into the Park Avenue Armory for Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger in the much-acclaimed, much-traveled David Pountney production, the opera itself had left me puzzled and underwhelmed, namely in the DVD shot live in Bregenz that preceded the opera’s many visits around the world.
The final scenes of this opera about Auschwitz and its aftermath were all I hoped they would be in terms of dramatic power. But the rest was undermined by its own less-than-singable vocal lines that had little sense of characterization and instrumental writing that was often compelling, but almost as often, seemed to draw a blank, like irrelevant scenic decoration.
Perhaps without realizing it, Lincoln Center Festival (which presented beautifully-prepared Houston Grand Opera incarnation of the production) filled in the many cracks two days before the opening with a panel of concentration camp survivors, chief among them Zofia Posmysz, now 90-something, who authored the story on which the opera was based. She not only survived Auschwitz but spent three weeks traveling on foot back home to Cracow.
The story’s genesis came after the war: She was in Paris on business and heard a voice that had probably haunted her in her nightmares: The German-language voice of her Auschwitz overseer, who had singled her own for a bit of favoritism that turned into occasions for close-proximity psychological warfare. Posmysz was frozen: Should she call the police? Stop and say hello? Keep walking?
She turned around. False alarm.
It wasn’t the overseer after all. The plot of The Passenger tells the story from the opposite perspective, imagining that her former SS overseer had become the respectable wife of an ambassador, on a long ship cruise to Brazil, when she thinks she sees a camp survivor and her sordid secret past comes out. The opera’s production made the survivor even more ghostly by her having a white sun veil over her face. In my review for WQXR’s Operavore blog, I made allusions to Banquo’s ghost.
The story was made into a movie that had to shut down in mid-production in 1961 when its director, Andrzej Munk, died in a car accident. Flashback sequences in Auschwitz were apparently finished, and stills had been taken for the ocean liner scenes that take place 15 years later.
Even in its state, the film is more compelling than the opera. The psychological warfare is easier to pinpoint. The film had faces. The Nazi overseer, with a passing resemblance to Jody Foster, was the perfect martinet in the camp scenes, and in the later stills, had convincingly aged into an ideal trophy wife though still with that lingering Nazi arrogance. Such precise casting just isn’t possible in opera, particularly in one as difficult to sing as this. The subtle exchange of affection between the inmate Marta and her fiance were one of the film’s most poignant aspects.
Weinberg had his own back story. He fled Poland the minute the German invasion was reported, but went east to Russia, suffered all manner of privation and eventually came to be a recognized composer, with the support of Dmitri Shostakovich. So he came to The Passenger with no lack of experiential depth. But could he express than in music? Of course, the opera portrayed the brutality of the camps in broad strokes rather than the scalpel knife of the film. Of course, opera compensates in other ways by emotionally opening up key moments, though Weinberg only did so in the final scenes. Though powerful, his ending seems to abandon all pretense of theatricality as the inmate Marta faces the audience and makes a impassioned plea to humanity. But gone was the character’s mystery, her poetic ambiguity.
Perhaps my disappointment wouldn’t have been so strong had I not the opportunity – for which I’m extremely grateful to Lincoln Center for providing – to be in the same room with the real-life survivors. Among them, I felt the strongest connection to Esther Bauer, who had been shuttled around to a variety of work camps and brought them alive with a wry sense of observation. “For the first 20 years after, I didn’t want to talk about it,” she said. “For the second 20 years, nobody wanted to hear me talk about it. And now…I’m taking all the speaking engagements I can get.”
But I’ve also had a run of modern operas in recent weeks, to which The Passenger stands up in unexpected ways. First up was Quartett by Luca Francesconi, which had an acclaimed La Scala premiere in 2011 and arrived this summer at the Royal Opera’s studio theater at Covent Garden. Claims about Francesconi being one of the great young composers of his generation perhaps aren’t exaggerated. His command of sound, both acoustic and electronically-generated, is unsurpassed, and was effectively put to the service of the story, which riffs on Dangerous Liaisons. The fact that the riff barely followed the original story wasn’t the problem. The opera became an extended exercise in sexual degradation, the sort that was very much in fashion in the 1990s (Louis Andriessen’s Rosa, for example) but seems so passe now, and wasn’t re-animated with much conviction in Quartett. By the end, the opera felt like a very complicated pose, a very fine composer making a calculated bid for public attention.
Contrast that with Love and Other Demons by Peter Eotvos, premiered some years ago at Glyndebourne but only recently issued on CD on Glyndebourne’s own label. I stumbled upon it at the gift shop during intermissions of Rosenkavalier, and what a revelation it is. Eotvos has has his triumphs (The Three Sisters), his duds (Angels in America) and now seems to be at a point in his compositional career where so much of what he does feels right, starting with the ultra-spare prelude in Demons, based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ story of a girl bitten by a dog, though nobody seems to know if she’s infected by rabies, Satan or simply love. Magic realism meets opera. Aren’t they sort of the same thing?
What do these pieces tell me about The Passenger? Better to have the conviction – that’s so lacking in Quartett – than the compositional technique, the lack of which leaves Weinberg groping for creative solutions amid the multi-faceted demands of the theater. Compare Weinberg’s surreal use of celesta with similar effects in Eotvos’ opening moments. Weinberg deftly creates atmosphere; Eotvos gives you a nursery rhyme going slowly awry, telling you much of what you need to know about what follows. That’s what happens when conviction and technique both run high. Only then do you have an opera.