Bavarian State Opera’s new production of The Passenger

GermanyGermany Weinberg, The Passenger (Die Passagierin): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Nationaltheater, Munich, 9.2.2024. (ALL)

Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger © Wilfried Hösl

Production ­­– Tobias Kratzer
Sets and Costumes – Rainer Sellmaier
Lighting – Michael Bauer
Video – Manuel Braun, Jonas Dahl
Chorus master – Christoph Heil
Dramaturgy – Christopher Warmuth

Marta – Elena Tsallagova
Lisa – Sophie Koch
Old Lisa – Sibylle Maria Dordel
Tadeusz – Jaques Imbrailo
Krystina – Daria Proszek
Vlasta – Lotte Betts-Dean
Hannah – Noa Beinart
Yvette – Evgeniya Sotnikova
Bronka – Larissa Diadkova
Walter – Charles Workman
Three SS men – Bálint Szabó, Roman Chabaranok, Gideon Poppe
Elderly Passenger – Martin Snell
A Stewart – Lukhanyo Bele
A Kapo – Sophie Wendt

‘To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.’ (Elie Wiesel)

The programming of an opera house like that in Munich is done several years in advance. ‘Life imitates art’, said Oscar Wilde, and neither Serge Dorny nor Vladimir Jurowski could have anticipated that Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose would illustrate modern Russia under Putin, that Prokofiev’s War and Peace would take on another dimension with the war in Ukraine, that Devils of Loudun would make us aware of the tyranny of religious dogmas or that Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger would take place after the pogroms of October 7th, especially after realizing that in some countries, 25% of people believe that the Holocaust did not exist or was exaggerated. Who could have anticipated that opera would be such an up-to-date form of reflection?

As with War and Peace, Vladimir Jurowski made some ‘modifications’ to the text in order to de-Stalinize the work, where he replaced the triumphant entry of the troops liberating Moscow with a somewhat grotesque fanfare. For The Passenger, the chorus sings not in Russian but in Polish, and the interventions of the character Katya, a propaganda figure, are removed.

There is also a certain amount of re-interpretation to Tobias Kratzer’s directorial approach. The set of the first act represents a series of terraces on the boat taking the elderly Lisa to bury her husband. But the memory of her actions at Auschwitz haunts her, and in each passenger she sees Marta, who she knows is responsible for what happened to her. Ultimately, she commits suicide. The second act tells of the death of Tadeusz, Marta’s fiancé and violinist, who proudly refuses to play the waltz requested by the guards and instead plays Bach’s Chaconne.

There is no classical representation of Auschwitz, but the memory of the camps is present. Only at the end does a small television appear showing black and white images, barely distinguishable, which are now, for a new generation, the means by which they will become aware of this horror and carry the torch of remembrance. Personally, every time I see them, I wonder if I recognize my own family.

All of this is intelligent and powerful, and we appreciate once again the care with which these works are treated, as one would with Wagner, Richard Strauss, or Mozart.

Vladimir Jurowski in the pit is once again in his element in this music halfway between Berg and Shostakovich. The vocal cast is outstanding, but what stands out most is having so many singer-actors on stage capable of characterizing their roles so well. Sophie Koch deserves special mention; she is capable of alternating between so many contradictory feelings, Charles Workman is very eloquent as Walter and especially Elena Tsallagova, former Vixen under Barrie Kosky, so dramatic and touching as Marta. As always in Munich, the supporting roles are very well cast.

How could we have ignored Weinberg’s music until now? This same opera has just been staged in Madrid (review here). The Salzburg Festival will offer another of his operas this summer: The Idiot based on Dostoevsky, and new recordings allow us to discover his compositions. Such an evening makes one eager to discover more of his works.

For this second performance, the hall was full with a very attentive and enthusiastic audience of all generations, who will not be among those 25% who have forgotten what Auschwitz was.

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

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