Powerful Holocaust Memories in Weinberg’s The Passenger

United StatesUnited States Mieczysław Weinberg, The Passenger: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 15.3.2015 (JLZ)

PASSENGER KUS-5108   Photo (c) Robert Kusel
PASSENGER KUS-5108 Photo (c) Robert Kusel

Marta: Amanda Majeski
Liese: Daveda Karanas
Walter: Brandon Jovanovich
Tadeusz: Joshua Hopkins
Katya: Kelly Kaduce
Old woman: Nina Warren
Yvette: Uliana Alexyuk
Vlasta: J’nai Bridges
Krzystina: Julie Miller
Bronka: Liuba Sokolova
Hannah: Agnieszka Rehlis
First SS Officer: Bradley Smoak
Second SS Officer: Richard Ollarasaba
Third SS Officer: John Irvin
Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis
Director: David Pountney
Set Designer: Johan Engels
Costume Designer: Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer: Fabrice Kebour
Chorus Master: Michael Black


The Passenger (1968) by Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) brings the sixtieth-anniversary season of Lyric Opera of Chicago to a satisfying close. Admired by Shostakovich, this rediscovered—and effective—twentieth-century score tells the story of individuals surviving the Holocaust, and their encounters with each other decades afterward.

First staged in 2006, the opera is based on a 1959 radio play, Pasażerka z kabiny 45, inspired by the autobiography of Zofia Posmysz and her memories in a concentration camp. Years later, Posmysz thought she heard the voice of her Nazi overseer, and she transformed that experience into a narrative about him and a prisoner who was purportedly executed. The two-act libretto shifts dramatically between the present and the past, as the former overseer recognizes the excruciating horror of Auschwitz. Alexander Medvedev’s libretto is in multiple languages—German, Polish, Russian, French, English, Czech, and Yiddish—and Weinberg’s music resembles the style Shostakovich used in his 1934 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
The action takes place on board an ocean liner, where Liese (sung by Daveda Karanas) is haunted by the presence of a mysterious passenger, Marta, her former prisoner, a role Amanda Majeski brings to life with impeccable style, and effective acting, such as the scene in which she intentionally misreads a Polish-language document to save a fellow prisoner. Majeski elicits passion from the sometimes spare score, and the second-act duet with her fiancé Tadeusz (Joshua Hopkins) stands out for its dissonant lyricism. The intensity she offers at the end is notable for her piano and pianissimo tones, which are rich and reverberant.
As Liese, the wife of a German diplomat who must confess to her husband her secret life as an Auschwitz SS officer, Daveda Karanas navigated extreme dramatic shifts as Liese periodically lost and regained composure, delivering her lines with remarkable diction and bringing to life anguish and internal conflicts. Her manipulative and sometimes sinister sides are more pointed in the second act, which reveals details she kept from her husband, eventually leading to the final confrontation with the mysterious passenger. It is the kind of character study associated with Alfred Hitchcock, and a tribute both to Weinberg’s compositional skills and to Karanas’s acting ability.
While the drama revolves around these two characters, Brandon Jovanovich was exceptional as Walter, the diplomat who must address his wife’s strange reactions to the voyager. Jovanovich’s fine command of the German language helped to shape the drama and reinforce its emotional pitch. As Tadeusz, who appears in the second act, Joshua Hopkins gave a powerful reading, especially in his note-perfect duet with Majeski. His warm, rich baritone was one of the evening’s high points.
The women who played the prisoners were uniformly strong. Some of the textures in their vocal lines are reminiscent of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. In Weinberg’s score the overtly dissonant idiom reinforces the sense of frustration and anger, as does the orchestration, sometimes depicting violent beatings. Sir Andrew Davis conducted with a deft touch, bringing together not only the large orchestra, but also the onstage musicians and the occasional use of pre-recorded music.
The staging, by David Pountney, is a co-production of the Bregenzer Festspiele (Austria), Teatr Wielki Opera Narodowa Warszawa (Poland), the English National Opera (UK), and the Teatro Real, Madrid (Spain), an effort as international as Weinberg’s text. Johan Engels’ imposing set is a cutout of an ocean liner—the present-day world of the German ambassador and his wife—with modular attachments to represent the couple’s private cabin, which moved easily into the front of the stage when needed. A corresponding compartment for the chorus allowed them to comment directly on the action. Engels’ placed the Auschwitz barracks under the ship, with prisoners’ holds and other parts of the camp visible below. Light booms functioned as prison turrets.

The two levels of the set include stairs from the ship to the death camp, allowing Liese to move back to the camp in the finale, with the living Marta singing from the front of the stage. These powerful spatial considerations not only supported the narrative, but helped elicit a strong response from the audience.
James L. Zychowicz

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