The Passenger

Reviewer's Rating

Reviewing The Passenger is a very unusual and challenging task. An opera that brings to life the very dark days of Europe during WWII is performed in front of a mostly Jewish audience, in Tel-Aviv, on the eve of the National Holocaust Memorial Day, when most TV channels run testimonials and documentaries with very similar horror accounts. The powerful libretto, combined with set and costume design works that leave very little to the imagination, make it very difficult to focus calmly and objectively on the artistic virtues of the production or of the opera itself as a work.

The Passenger was written in Russia in 1968 but was not performed during the period of the Soviet regime. A semi-staged production was shown in Moscow only in 2006, a decade after the composer’s death. A fully staged version was performed for the first time in 2010, directed by David Pountney, who is also responsible for the Israeli Opera version.

Zofia Posmysz was a Catholic girl from Krakow when she was arrested in 1942 by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz, working under the Nazi overseer Annaliese (Lisa) Frantz. She was released in 1945 but nightmares from her camp days kept haunting her. When visiting Paris as a journalist in 1959 she thought she was overhearing the voice of that Lisa. It led her to the writing of a radio play which developed into a novel and then a film, titled The Passenger from Cell 45, in which she told her account from the war from the vantage point of her Nazi overseer. Shostakovich read the novel, and knowing the family history of his composer friend Weinberg, he gave him and Medevdev the idea of writing an opera based on this story.

The plot begins on an ocean liner in the early 1960s. Walter, a German diplomat and his younger wife Lisa, are on their way to Brazil. Suddenly she sees a fellow passenger who she thinks she recognizes despite knowing that person to be dead. Under the shock of this encounter, she reveals to her husband for the first time she was an SS overseer in Auschwitz. The revelation is a crisis for both of them. In the camp, we learn that the “Passenger” is thought to be Martha, a Polish prisoner whom Lisa has marked out as someone who could help her control the other prisoners. Moving to the female barracks, we meet women from every corner of Europe brought together in this cosmopolitan hell.

The plot keeps moving from the present to the past. The present is happening on the upper deck – all white and glamorous. The past – on the lower deck, where all is dark with bricks, metal doors of a crematorium and scary railways. A staircase connects the two decks, allowing images from the past to surface, forcing Lisa to confront her dark past. Even when the opera ends we don’t really know if Martha was actually on the ship or if it was just Lisa’s conscience who brought her back to life.

In his score Weinberg creates a collage of Russian folk music with the harmonious darkness that characterizes it. He does not fall into the trap of over sentimentalism. On the contrary, he incorporates a kaleidoscope of musical styles – jazz, a Vienna Waltz, Brazilian music and folk songs. In a way, the music serves as a soundtrack to the plot, it is hard to imagine it having a life of its own. The use of percussion instruments is profound.

Each character sings in his or her native language, altogether seven different languages: Polish, German, Czech, Russian, French, Yiddish and Hebrew. All leading roles are done very well, including Daveda Karanas as Lisa, David Danholt as Walter,  Adrienne Miksch as Martha and Morgan Smith as the prisoner Tadeusz. Joining them from the chorus are female prisoners from all over Europe, each in small but powerful roles typical of their respective origins: Larissa Tetuev, Moran Abouloff, Daniela Skorka, Anat Czarny, Zlata Khershberg and Shay Bloch.

Stephen Mercurio conducts a very challenging score with a deep understanding of the music and what it stands for and David Pountney has once again created with his production a strong argument for the importance of this masterpiece.