Mieczyslaw WEINBERG (1919-1996)
The Passenger - opera in two acts, eight scenes and an epilogue Op.97 (1967-1968)
Michelle Breedt - Lisa; Roberto Sacca - Walter; Elena Kelessidi - Martha; Artur Rucinski - Tadeusz; Svetlana Doneva - Katja; Angelica Voje - Krzystina; Elzbieta Wroblewska - Vlasta; Talia Or - Ivette; Agnieszka Rehlis - Hannah; Helen Field - Old Woman; Liuba Sokolova - Bronka
Vienna Symphony Orchestra Orchestra/Teodor Currentzis
rec. Bregenz Festival 2010 (world premiere recording)
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 Surround; Picture Format: 16:9, 1080i; Region free
NEOS 51005 BLU-RAY VIDEO [190:00]
This important issue is very well presented with a full libretto and notes in German, French, English and Polish. The introductory essay is by none other than Shostakovich who writes highly of his young colleague's work. The menu system is blessedly silent and the sound and picture are top class. The DTS HD surround track really makes one feel inside the excellent Festspielhaus at Bregenz - which is where the more specialist operas are presented whilst the crowds visit the lakeside stage for such as Aida. The extra is a superb film "In der Fremde" about Weinberg and his opera with contributions from the original author of this semi-autobiographical memoir Zofia Posmysz and many of those involved in the performance. This film is no mere 'extra' but a key part of the disc and simply must be watched before or after the opera because it helps to place everything in perspective. It is mostly in German and subtitled in English.
The facts surrounding both Weinberg and his opera could make it only too easy to attribute significance where it is possible none exists. He was a Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish origins. This is reflected in his Wikipedia entry where he is variously known as Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Moisey or Moishe Vainberg, or Moisey Samuilovich Vaynberg. He fell foul of Stalin as did so many others, and given the placement of much of this opera in Auschwitz no less, one has to ask if the quality of the work is able to support the weight of political and moral history this implies. I had watched the whole of Act I before reading any notes, especially before discovering that Shostakovich was the author of the booklet essay. It was fortunately obvious that Weinberg had written something very special and risen fully to the challenge of his libretto. Sometimes it sounded as though the Shostakovich of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was hovering in the background, especially the dark final music of Katerina Ismailova's despair. But Weinberg is no mere imitator, he has a voice of his own and it is a very impressive one. One has to conclude that the neglect of this work, which waited over forty years for a production, is due entirely to its contentious subject matter and in no way reflects on its quality. I am not sure if it achieves real greatness but it comes close and who knows what Weinberg might have done had he been able to watch a production such as this and then carry out the usual revisions that other opera scores gain after their premieres.
The plot can be summarised as follows: Lisa and her husband Walter are on board a ship heading to Brazil. It is post-war and Walter is taking up the post of Ambassador for West Germany. Lisa sees a fellow passenger who reminds her of someone she knew in her past role as an SS overseer at Auschwitz. The Passenger of the title went to her death in the camp, so Lisa believes. Lisa has never told her husband of her dark past and the presence of The Passenger, Martha, is a dangerous situation. Large sections of the opera are flashbacks to the events involving Lisa and Martha and other inmates in the camp. The relationship between SS overseer Lisa and prisoner Martha is deeply ambivalent. The rest of the opera works out the consequences for Martha, who has indeed survived, and for Lisa and her husband who have to balance love, guilt and real-politik. In an epilogue Martha appears, dressed precisely like author Zofia Posmysz, to lay out the weight of her duty to remember those who did not survive and her guilt at being the survivor.
The Passenger is uncomfortable viewing because of its subject. The music is very fine with plenty of contrast of pace and dynamics. It does not fall into the noisy category of Reimann's Medea reviewed recently but sits somewhere between Shostakovich and Berg in its complexity and grit. It could have gone so very badly wrong to set an opera in a concentration camp but Weinberg was a strong enough composer to get his point across and this performance is magnificent in all respects. Shostakovich was right to 'believe' in The Passenger.
An almost unknown, almost great opera in a stunning production.