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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Coliseum


  Carolyn Dobbin and Giselle Allen/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

Portraying the Holocaust in the arts can never be taken lightly. The danger of causing offence through trivialization or insensitive commercialism is all too prevalent, be it on film, on the page or on the stage. Indeed, there are those who automatically label any attempt to recreate such a catastrophe, regardless of the integrity that might be attached, as obscene. And of course, they have a point. The sheer scale of the Holocaust’s inhumanity defies belief and always will. No art form can accurately convey the suffering and the tragedy of mankind’s most unspeakable crime.

But if it is possible for any creative endeavor to come anywhere close to doing so, it must surely be opera – the profoundest, most moving, most expressive and most affecting of all the art forms. And so it proves with The Passenger, a hitherto unperformed opera based on a novel by Zofia Posmyz, a devout Catholic who spent over three  years in Auschwitz, and who, at the age of 88, enforced this view by recently stating that “words cannot describe the full horror (of Auschwitz). Nor painting. Perhaps only music.”

The operatic incarnation of Posmyz’s novel was composed in 1968 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish Jew who fled to Russia in 1939 where, despite being championed by Dimitri Shoshtakovich, he became an outsider whose formidable output of music, including The Passenger, was banned outright or simply ignored.

It wasn’t until director David Pountney, quite by chance, discovered the score of The Passenger and staged it to great acclaim at the Bregenz Festival last year that the opera finally made it to the stage. It’s Pountney’s production that’s receiving its British premiere courtesy of the English National Opera, and what a moving and compelling evening in the theatre it turns out to be.

The time is the 1960s, the setting an ocean liner bound for Brazil. On board are two women whose paths crossed 20 years earlier – at Auschwitz. One on them, Liese, now married to a diplomat about to take up an important position in Brazil, was a former SS commandant in a woman’s barracks at the camp; the other is Marta, a Polish Jew of 19, and an inmate of the barracks.

Liese’s shocked recognition of Marta on the deck of the ship sets off a chain of emotions and memories of her past, forcing her to confess to her hitherto oblivious husband, her Nazi past.

The action cuts between the ocean liner – which, in Johann Engels’ striking set, would not be out of place in an Astaire-Rogers musical of the 30s – and, in complete contrast, the horror and degradation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In flashback we witness the strange relationship that develops between Liese and Marta in the camp and how Marta’s indomitable spirit sporadically brings out in Liese contradictory moments of compassion, fascination and cruelty. Intriguing her, too, is the romance that she knows Marta, against all the odds, is managing to have with her fiance Tadeusz – also a prisoner in the camp but who, unlike Marta, does not survive.

In the end, though, The Passenger isn’t just a catalogue of Nazi brutality; more affectingly it’s about collective guilt, good and evil, and how the Holocaust irrevocably changed people’s lives. But for it to be the masterpiece many of the opera’s newfound admirers claim, it needs a greater score than Weinberg is able to provide.

What we get is effective enough; striking tonalities with dramatically effective percussive chords and agonising shrieks in the brass and woodwind contrasting with more delicately scored lyrical passages. Snatches of folk songs collide with cadences of jazz, accessible waltzes and even a poignant Russian ballad. What’s missing, finally, is an original voice and the stamp of greatness Prokofiev or Shoshtakovich himself might have brought to it. Nor is Alexander Medvedev’s uneven libretto without its contradictions and occasional confusions.

Still, The Passenger, quite brilliantly directed by Pountney, makes a powerful statement about the human condition, and is never less than compelling. It’s stunningly sung and acted by Michelle Breedt as Liese, with Giselle Allen as Marta, Leigh Melrose as Tadeusz and Kim Begley as Liese’s husband all in fine vocal form. The ENO orchestra and chorus under Sir Richard Armstrong bring to this remarkable British premiere the gravitas and commitment the piece demands.

Members of the audience, clearly moved by what they had just seen, gave it a deservedly rapturous reception. I was one of them.


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