Composer: Mieczyslaw Weinberg
Conductor: Patrick Summers
Director: David Poutney
Liese: Michelle Breedt
Marta: Melody Moore
Walter: Joseph Kaiser
Tadeusz: Morgan Smith
Although summer typically has its fair share of mind-numbing entertainment such as beach novels, jack-hammer action movies and dumb comedies, once in a while comes up a worthy artistic endeavor. And that's exactly what happened last week when the Lincoln Center Festival presented Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger, a three-hour opera daring to take on the decidedly daunting subject matter of the Holocaust, which was performed by the Houston Grand Opera at The Park Avenue Armory.
With a story inspired by Passenger from Cabin Number 45, a radio play by Zofia Posmysz, a Polish woman who had survived three years in Auschwitz before becoming a noted journalist and writer, and a score composed by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish man who lost his entire family, his country and his name in 1939 before fleeing to Russia where other challenges would await him, The Passenger had irreproachable pedigree from the very beginning. But where would it go from there?
The Park Avenue Armory was clearly not designed for live musical performances, but on the other hand, even my side seat in the penultimate row was still a vast improvement over The Met's Family Circle. And if I was not thrilled by the unavoidable amplification, I must admit that it was discreet and unobtrusive, much more so in fact than the hearing aid of the man sitting next to me. Luckily I was able to escape the grating echoing and buzzing effects coming from the device by moving away quickly and settling down again three seats away, mentally thanking from the bottom of my heart whoever had not showed up and saved my evening.
The Passenger's plot is fairly simple: In the 1960s, while accompanying her diplomat husband to his new assignment in Brazil aboard a luxury ship, a woman seems to recognize a former prisoner, supposedly long dead, she used to supervise at Auschwitz during the war. This triggers a confession about her past to her shocked husband as well as a trip down to the hell that was the notorious prisoners' camp. That's where we ended up spending most of the evening, leaving the frivolous pleasures of luxury cruising above for an examination of life and survival down under.
A lot of the performance's success depended on the two leading ladies, and they both brilliantly gave full human dimension to their characters while maintaining a superior level of musical integrity. As the traveler Liese, mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt easily went from seemingly gentle high society lady to cruel, sometimes ambiguous, camp overseer.
She found the perfect sparring partner in soprano Melody Moore, whose Marta steadily bristled with strength and poise even when confronting evil forces. Her singing was bright, assured, and even in the darkest moments lighted up the stage with uncompromising dignity, turning the young prisoner into a true leader.
Walter is a hapless man, but he still deserves to be heard, and tenor Joseph Kaiser imparted his understandably dumfounded diplomat with just enough humanity not to make him look despicable. Moreover, his naturally elegant singing totally fit in the fancy environment he was traveling in.
Tadeusz, Marta's fiancé, was the closest we ever came to a romantic lead, and baritone Morgan Smith had the looks and the voice to memorably fill the part. He was not onstage often, but his presence improved every scene he was in: love struck with Marta, proudly defiant with Liese, and grandly standing with the commandant.
Marta's companions in the camp were all fully drawn out characters so that the various personalities effortlessly came through. Their playful camaraderie and unwavering solidarity were vividly expressed in scenes like the chaotic arrival of the new prisoners, Marta's unflappably lying to save a Russian partisan, and the touching celebration of her birthday.
Taking place in two different worlds, the opera benefited from an ingeniously designed two-level set that made good use of The Armory's cavernous space. The top level represented the upper deck of an opulent ocean liner on which white-clad beautiful people wandered, conversed and danced with enviable insouciance. Right underneath stood the filthy camp where the Nazis ruled and the prisoners struggled to survive. Railroad tracks efficiently helped move lights and sections of the set while starkly symbolizing the transient nature of the business at hand. Having the chorus hang over the camp as a bunch of curious modern witnesses was another inspired idea emphasizing the hard-to-believe horrors happening below and their relevance to our modern times.
But even with a dynamite cast and an impressive set, The Passenger could not hide a few superficial flaws such as non-singing exchanges that generally lacked dramatic resonance, music conveying emotional turmoil too pompously, and the frustratingly uneven pace of the whole thing. But that's nitpicking when one thinks of the many powerful moments, including the unforgettable climax during which Tadeusz, summoned to perform the commandant's beloved cheesy waltz in front of him, threw himself into Bach's Chaconne instead, a defiant move that will have fatal consequences, just like his solo violin will eventually be overpowered by the full orchestra.
If the opera itself was not an impeccably well-rounded affair, Weinberg's score presented an remarkable wide range of musical components such as the light jazz entertaining the well-heeled passengers on the ship, the jarring dissonances endured by Walter when discovering that his wife is a monster, the richly melodic romanticism illuminating Marta and Tadeusz's chance encounter, the sweet simplicity of the a cappella Russian folk song sung by Katya. The biting influence of Dmitri Shostakovich, Weinberg's long-time friend and mentor, was everywhere to be found, but the composition had also clearly been put together by someone who was working from first-hand experience.
Placed stage left but still visible by most, the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra made itself superbly heard under the energetic baton of Patrick Summers. The relentless score is not an easy one to tame, but the overall performance was clean, sharp and perfectly balanced. This was definitely not pretty music, but its jagged edges made it all the more intriguingly complex, eventually giving the opera its irrepressible force and profound humanity.