Friday, January 31, 2020

The Passenger

Last evening I had the privilege of attending the Canadian premiere of Mieczysław Weinberg’s opera Pasażerka (The Passenger), sung by the many talented students of the University of British Columbia’s (UBC’s) Opera School, the UBC Opera Ensemble, the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, and ably led by conductor David Agler.

According to the programme notes, the opera’s story is adapted from a 1962 radio play by Polish author and Auschwitz survivor, Zofia Posmysz, with libretto by Alexaner Medvedev. In another article, I discovered that Posmysz was arrested by the Germans in Krakow, sent to Auschwitz, but survived the experience because she was put to work in the kitchen, and subsequently became the book-keeper under SS Overseer Aufseherin Anneliese Franz, who became one of two main characters of the opera. Working as a journalist in Paris after the war, she overheard a woman whom she thought was Anneliese Franz. This sowed the seed for the story, as Posmysz imagined how she would react if she actually met Franz again.

The story started off as a radio play, and then a novel. In the novel, she reverses the situation to the form presented in the opera: Anneliese Franz was now married, and was traveling on a ship with her husband to take up a diplomatic post in Brazil. On the ship, she saw a young woman whom she knew well in Auschwitz, but thought had perished. The vision of this woman – indeed I wondered throughout the performance whether this “passenger” was real, or an extension of Franz’s guilty conscience – led her to confess her Nazi past to her surprised husband. The story of the opera then switches from present to past and back again.

Not knowing the music beforehand, and not having the score with me, it is only possible for me to make generalized observations and comments. Given the composer’s closeness to Shostakovich, I was trying to detect influences of the great Soviet composer. Indeed, in some of the orchestration, as well as in the angular melodies of the lyrical passages, there are hints of some form of influence by Shostakovich, but Weinberg’s musical language is totally and absolutely his own. The music of the camp is dramatic, brutal, almost deliberately ugly, but the vocal writing of some of the lyrical scenes gave us not only emotional relief, a brief escape from the harsh reality of this hell on earth. In Act II, Scene III, when the SS guards suddenly burst into the women’s barrack, and one by one various passengers was taken away, the prisoners’ exhortation for the survivors never to forget these crimes, was extremely powerful and moving. In the same scene, one of the prisoners who was Russian, sang an unaccompanied solo song describing her country, the result was also chilling and emotional. In the epilogue of the opera, when the entire chorus once again exhorts all of us not to forget these crimes against humanity, it brought about not only a moving conclusion to the music, but an almost cathartic experience. 

The voices from last night’s cast were uniformly strong, Leila Kirves as Lisa (Anneliese Franz) and Catherine Thornsley as Marta the passenger, were outstanding. Thornsley’s sensitive and emotional singing really highlighted the compassion and humanity of Marta. It is credit to director (and head of the UBC Opera School) Nancy Hermiston that all of the roles were well cast. Kudos also to Professor Hermiston and the set designer for the simple but effective set - the choir loft of the Chan Centre became the deck of the ocean liner, while the main stage was set as the concentration camp - a highly imaginative use of a space that was not at all meant for opera!

The Vancouver Opera Orchestra rose to the technical and musical challenges of Weinberg’s writing, and the highly experienced Maestro David Agler guided the young singers with an able hand. 

On the whole, UBC Opera’s production of Pasażerka was a searing and moving theatrical experience. For me, it is not the kind of music one could merely listen to, but one that has to be experienced in toto. I feel that Weinberg’s music serves as a kind of catalyst to bring the drama alive. Judging from the silence of last night’s audience, I believe that all of us fortunate enough to have shared this experience would not easily forget it. Surely we could all be reminded not only of this ugly chapter in our recent history, but of the potential of man’s cruelty to his or her fellow human beings.

Patrick May

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