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Mieczysław WAJNBERG [WEINBERG] (1919-1996) The Passenger, Op. 97 (1967-1968), opera in 2 acts with an epilogue – sung in Russian
Nadezhda Babintseva – Liese
Vladimir Cheberyak – Walter
Natalia Karlova – Marta
Dmitri Starodubov – Tadeusz
Olga Tenyakova – Katya
Irina Kulikovskaya – Vlasta
Tatiana Nikandorova – Hannah
Aleksandra Kulikova – Bronka
Natalia Mokeeva – Ivette
Chorus and Orchestra of the Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre
Oliver von Dohnányi
rec. 2016, Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, Russia DUX 8387 DVD [160:34]
If the name Mieczysław Wajnberg sounds familiar but doesn’t look as you expected, it is due to the various ways in which his name can be represented: it is most commonly spelt Weinberg, but there is also a variant that begins with a V – three names one composer. Like a lot of people, I got to know this work through the ArtHaus Musik release (109080) which I borrowed from a friend. I was very impressed with that production and the way that it portrayed, what is in effect, a harrowing story. It tells of a former Auschwitz guard, Liese, who is on board a ship with her husband Walter, a German diplomat, heading for Brazil, when she sees a woman who she thinks is Mata, an inmate of the death camp who she had long thought to be dead. Racked with guilt caused by her reminiscences of the camp, she tells Walter what she did during the war, he fears a diplomatic scandal, so they ask a ship’s steward to enquire into the woman’s background, and when he comes back and tells her she is English she thinks her troubles are over.
There are some good scenes here, such as when Liese tells Walter of her role in the camp, this is well acted, especially by Vladimir Cheberyak who uses his voice to portray the full gambit of human emotions, from happiness to fear and horror to relief, in one short scene he gives it his all. However, it is in the scenes set in Auschwitz that this production is the winner, it portrays the dark reality of life in the camp with greater starkness than the ArtHaus production.
Act II opens back in Auschwitz, with the camp commandant’s family around a Christmas tree and a grotesque waltz playing in the background, which would not be out of place in one of Shostakovich’s Jazz Suites; the two composers were good friends and are believed to have shared some ideas between themselves, and there certainly seems to be some cross fertilisation, especially in Act II. When the action shifts back to the ship the steward comes to tell Liese and Walter that he has more information about the mysterious woman, and that whilst she is a British citizen, she is Polish by birth and it is at this point that they enter the ballroom and whilst they are dancing, the waltz tune from the camp is requested by the woman and more memories come flooding back for Liese – including the death of Tadeusz, who had been the fiancé of Marta before the war, and who as a violinist had performed the waltz for the commandant. Finally, the mysterious woman is revealed as Marta, and she sits close to Liese and sings of the past and of those who perished.
I enjoyed this production; whilst the singing may not be as polished as the ArtHaus, there is, I think, a greater sense of the occasion and of ensemble here, I particularly liked the singing of the two main characters, and that of Olga Tenyakova as Katya, who when asked to sing to the prisoners an old heartfelt song of Russia, does just that. The rest of the soloists and chorus sing very well and portray a greater sense of emotion that in the ArtHaus, even if a little rough around the edges. The set might not be as grand as in David Pountney’s production, but as already mentioned, the Auschwitz scenes were staged better, with the set ideal for the smaller theatre. The recorded sound is very good, something that brings out the fine orchestral playing. There are, unlike the ArtHaus, no extra features, whilst the booklet offers a short introduction to the opera, a note about the production and a synopsis in Polish, English and Russian. This is not the opera to watch when you are feeling a little bit down, but it is a production that gives you hope.