The Passenger is a bleak story, but through the medium of opera it resonated with the audience last Wednesday to the extent that by the end many were on their feet applauding, touched by the melancholy account. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel ‘Pasazerka’ by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, it is brought to the stage by librettist Alexander Medvedev and composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, and translated into English by Professor David Fanning, a lecturer who taught me at Manchester University!
I went along to the UK Premiere at the ENO to witness this dark work for myself. Set in the early 1960s and focussing on the after-effects of the Holocaust, it is unsurprisingly a heavy night. Johan Engels’ set is marvellous, a symbolic white ship that beneath the decks reveals a dark and dusty camp, home of the tortured prisoners. This visual juxtaposition is intensely shocking and makes the narrative even more appalling.
The opera documents an encounter between two women – one is a former Auschwitz guard, the other a former prisoner. We watch the story unfurl in the camp, while in the present (fifteen years later) they unexpectedly meet again on a boat to Brazil, provoking feelings of guilt, terror, sadness and revenge. The action darts back and forth between past and present.
Weinberg’s music is challenging and unexpected, and demonstrates a mix of influences. Expansive and complex, I was amazed by the fluency of the orchestra and conductor (Sir Richard Armstrong). I was most moved by the folk tunes in the second half, especially the a cappella Russian song by Katya (Julia Sporsen). Vocally the cast are tremendous, and particular mention must go to leading ladies Michelle Breedt (Liese) and Giselle Allen (Marta) who both sing superbly, making the impossibly difficult and discordant music beautiful and powerful.
Weinberg’s The Passenger is a modern masterpiece and the ENO delivers a staggering experience. I hope this opera gets the recognition it deserves, the massive effort and dedication is clear in every aspect of this production.
The Passenger continues until October 25, book here.