A Passage to Purgatory
By Glenn Walters
Nearly four decades after its completion and 10 years after its composer’s death, Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera The Passenger finally received its world premiere at a public performance on December 25th 2006, in a semi-staged concert version at the Moscow International House of Music by singers and orchestra of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre.
To judge from what was seen and heard at that performance, The Passenger seems likely, at least in time, to be regarded as one of the truly outstanding operatic creations of the 20th century.
Born in Poland just after the end of World War I and a refugee to the Soviet Union at the start of World War II, Weinberg became a close friend and perhaps the most important protégé of fellow composer Dmitri Shostakovich. But his prolific output of music, including some 26 symphonies and seven operas, gained little recognition during his lifetime. Only in very recent years has it come to be heard with any regularity on concert stages either inside Russia or elsewhere in the world.
Weinberg and his librettist, Alexander Medvedev, based The Passenger on the novel of the same name by the Polish writer Zofia Posmysz. The story’s setting alternates between an ocean liner travelling from Europe to South America in 1959 and the concentration camp at Auschwitz during the years 1943-1944. Aboard the ship is Lisa, wife of a German diplomat on his way to take up a post in Brazil. Lisa, as it turns out, was once an SS guard at Auschwitz. To her consternation, she recognizes among the ship’s passengers one who resembles a certain Marta, a Polish inmate of the camp whom she attempted to befriend, but who presumably went to her death in the gas chamber.
After the opening scene on shipboard, the action switches to Auschwitz, where the horrors of the camp are witnessed by the voices of Marta and a group of women inmates of various nationalities. Eventually it moves back to the ship, where the fellow passenger’s identity seems now confirmed. As Lisa approaches her, Marta asks the ship’s band to strike up the vulgar waltz repeatedly played by the inmate musicians of Auschwitz on orders of the camp’s commandant. The Passenger ends as Marta stands alone by the side of a river, remembering and mourning those who perished at Auschwitz.
Weinberg’s score is one of gigantic proportions. And though it contains echoes from elsewhere – in particular the music of Austrian composer Alban Berg and of Shostakovich at his most free-wheeling – it is nevertheless a work of extraordinary originality.
Shostakovich called The Passenger “a masterpiece” and used his considerable influence in an attempt to bring it to the stage. And though at least four Soviet opera houses expressed interest in producing it, the country’s cultural authorities in each case exercised a veto.
The performance on Monday proved something of a miracle, given the unusual style and complexity of Weinberg’s writing for both voice and orchestra. The cast of young singers from the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko had obviously taken considerable pains to master the vocal line and for the most part did so with great success. Natalya Muradymova used her bright and powerful soprano to particularly moving effect in the role of Marta, while mezzosoprano Natalya Vladimirskaya brought appropriately darker tones and a convincing bewilderment to the part of Lisa.
No doubt greatest praise of all, however, must go to veteran Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko conductor Volf Gorelik for his obvious sensitivity to Weinberg’s musical language and the impassioned leadership he exercised over the forces at his command.
The minimal staging given The Passenger at this performance worked quite well. But surely the opera would have even greater impact if given a full-scale production. Assuming that word gets around, as it probably will after Monday’s performance, a production seems almost certain to be found before long on the stage of some enterprising opera house either in Russia or abroad.