MIECZYSŁAW WEINBERG (1919-1996): The Passenger.
Catalogue Number: 12R010
Label: Arthaus Musik
Description: An unforgettably powerful work. Weinberg regarded it as his most significant, and even given the consistent quality of his large output there is a strong case to support this point of view. It is increasingly clear that there is no musical reason for Weinberg's neglect, nor even for his having been overshadowed by the towering figure of Shostakovich; if there is one composer from Soviet Russia who may legitimately be regarded as Shostakovich's equal, it is Weinberg. To the extent that there are affinities between the composers' music - and there are, without doubt - they seem to be the rare example of the confluence of thinking of kindred creative minds, rather than 'borrowing' in either direction, except for deliberate homages. In this work in particular, the Shostakovich that most readily comes to mind is the vocabulary that the older composer was developing in the 1930s - more formally and harmonically adventurous than his middle-period works - that culminated in the Fourth Symphony, to which some elements are uncannily close (Weinberg might have been acquainted with this, one of Shostakovich's most personal works, and there might be layers of meaning in the points of contact between the pieces). While Shostakovich was compelled to exercise his immense talent to forge a revised aesthetic that satisfied his artistic credo while not antagonizing the authorities, Weinberg's relative obscurity may have allowed him to adhere to a more 'progressive' idiom, unhindered, of which this may be the pre-eminent example. In any case, The Passenger brought out the very best of Weinberg, a Polish Jew who lost close family to the Nazis. Based on a novel by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, adapted by Weinberg's three-time librettist Alexander Medvedev, the opera brings to the listener - with devastating precision - a glimpse of the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust by presenting it with the utmost skill in microcosm, through the memories of Auschwitz and its aftermath, of two women; a guard and one of her victims. The psychological subtlety of the book and libretto is breathtaking; rather than bludgeoning the audience with the horrors of the death camp as the primary focus of the story (though it is unflinchingly addressed) the narrative unfolds with the pacing of a first-rate thriller. Lisa, the former camp guard, is onboard a luxury liner with her husband, a respectable German diplomat, on their way to South America after the war. She sees another passenger, who resembles one of her victims, Marta, with whom she had had a power struggle which she lost; Marta was loved, even in the environment of the camp while Lisa was hated a thousand times over. The presence of the mysterious passenger forces Lisa to confront her past, leading to her final downfall; along the way, themes of German denial, the resilience of the oppressed, and the need to remember so as not to repeat are ingeniously woven together. The librettist and composer introduced a musical element into the storyline (Marta's fiancé, murdered in the camp, is a violinist), enabling the climax of the work - the final act of defiance in the camp, the last confrontation on the ship - to take place in purely musical terms, a magnificent and ingenious coup de théâtre. Weinberg's versatility in his overwhelming score, full of subtle detail yet with the power and massiveness of the finest symphonic writing, is remarkable, as he seamlessly transitions from the unyielding dark of the work's main idiom to the frivolous period dances on board the ship, church music in a prisoner's prayer, a simple Russian folksong (his Polish-Jewish origins are a distinctive feature of his incorporation of folk idioms into his style, especially telling in his portrayal of the imprisoned women of diverse nationalities). Shostakovich encouraged Weinberg to write this opera (perhaps knowing that under the scrutiny of the authorities he could never attempt such a project, focused on Polish Jews rather than adhering to the Soviet party line that emphasized the suffering of Russia in WWII), and wrote a glowing testimonial to it, reproduced in the booklet, which is all the recommendation that this harrowing, deeply human and profoundly necessary work needs. The staging is very effective, with the gleaming white ship on the upper level of the stage, and the realistically hellish Auschwitz set, where most of the action takes place, grimly supporting it, a constant visual analogy of the nightmare just beneath and perilously close to the tortured torturer's consciousness. Filmed with much use of close-ups for the intense interactions between the principals, though with appropriately framed views of the cleverly constructed multi-component sets in crowd scenes, the production features unsettlingly realistic, or imagination-provoking, costumes and props (the railway tracks, the ashes being shovelled out of an oven, the battery of cubicle bunks copied from the real ones preserved at the actual site, the faded sepia of the realistic prisoners' uniforms, resembling the faded period photographs that we've all seen) are chilling. The bonus documentary offers interesting insights into the preparation of the production, with interviews with key personnel - producer, designer, principals, the author of the book - detailing the lengths to which they went to present the work with the greatest authenticity - including a harrowing tour of Auschwitz itself. 2 DVDs. Michelle Breedt (mezzo), Roberto Saccà, Artur Rucinski (tenors), Elena Kelessidi (soprano), Prague Philharmonic Choir, Vienna Symphony Orchestra; Teodor Currentzis. 16:9 widescreen Dolby Digital 5.0 or PCM Stereo. NTSC region 0. 161 min. + 21 min. bonus material.