WEINBERG The Passenger (Dohnányi)
This gripping production from Yekaterinburg was the belated Russian stage premiere of Weinberg’s most celebrated work, the ‘Holocaust’ opera Passazhirka. Composed half a century ago, the opera’s harrowing subject matter – the guilt-ridden reminiscences of Lisa, a former SS guard at Auschwitz, to her diplomat husband, Walter, prompted by the chance sighting of the former inmate Martha – prohibited any chance of a production under the Soviet regime and its concert premiere was mounted only in 2006. David Pountney’s advocacy of this searing score showed that ‘this extremely important opera’ – as David Fanning judged it, reviewing ArtHaus’s reissue of that pioneering 2010 Bregenz Festival production – was an overwhelming theatrical experience, ‘a shattering denunciation of barbarism’.
The scenes set in Auschwitz by their very nature make extremely grim viewing but it is a tribute to Weinberg’s stage genius (and also his librettist Alexander Medvedev’s) that it is so compelling and ultimately uplifting. David Fanning has commented previously on the various controversial aspects of the score, which I will not recycle here, and Pountney’s interpretation of the climactic scene, when Martha’s fiancée, Tadeusz, plays Bach’s Chaconne instead of the boorish commandant’s favourite waltz. Weinberg scored it for the orchestral violins but Pountney – as Thaddeus Strassberger also does here – started with a solitary onstage player (the orchestral section takes it up later). Does this amount to ‘trivialising one of the most highly charged scenes in all opera’? I did not find it so when seeing it at ENO in 2011, nor the Neos/ArtHaus DVD, and again not here; the focus on the individual is all the more acute when facing the jackboot.
Strassberger’s production stands up well on its own terms, though I would have liked more light in the scenes set on the liner: it looks very dark throughout. The orchestra are well marshalled by Oliver von Dohnányi (whose discography rarely extends later than Johann Strauss), though occasionally their limitations are exposed, as in the scrappy interlude before Act 2 scene 2, ‘Workshop’; the Vienna Symphony Orchestra are markedly superior. The Russian honours go to the singers, especially Nadezhda Babintseva as Lisa and Natalia Karlova as Martha (as moving if not so radiant as Elena Kelessidi on Neos/ArtHaus). The tenderness and stillness of the ensemble at the heart of Act 2 is almost too much to bear, especially given what follows. Recorded for TV broadcast, the video direction is straightforward but effective. The subtitles and minimal synopsis are available in English, Polish and Russian only. A highly commendable issue: with fascism on the march again in central Europe, and offshoots sprouting obscenely from North America to Russia, Weinberg’s opera is increasingly relevant. As Krzysztof Olendzki, director of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Poland, writes in the booklet: ‘The Passenger is a shocking work. It is a guardian of memory, which should be cultivated by all.’