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Friday, July 11, 2014

Opera Review: Hell is Below Decks

The Lincoln Center Festival sends out The Passenger.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The final tableau of The Passenger showing the split-level set.
Photo by Stephanie Berger for the Lincoln Center Festival © 2014.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg was a minor 20th century composer, best remembered for his association with Dmitri Shostakovich, his large output of string quartets and for his film score to Vinnie-Pukh, a distinctly Russian take on the children's story Winnie The Pooh. The Passenger may be his crowning achievement, a searing, intense opera that finds a German diplomat's wife having to confront her past as an overseer in the S.S. assigned to the concentration camp Auschwitz.

David Poutney's production (first seen at Bregenz in 2010 and here in its New York premiere as part of this year's Lincoln Center Festival) has massive staging requirements. (The director had the Wade Thompson Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory in mind when he designed this huge production.) The cavernous military building housed a split-level set, with a steamship's smokestack and the lily-white world of an ocean liner (en route to Brazil) mounted above the brutal reality of the concentration camp. Searchlights (manned by stagehands dressed as Nazi soldiers) gravel and the filthy, dehumanizing barracks and death chambers were mounted on purpose-built railroad tracks, effectively showing the mobilization of modern industry to the cause of human slaughter.

Based on Pasażerka, a novel by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, The Passenger was composed in 1968 but effectively quashed by Soviet-era censors in Russia, Poland and Czechoslovakia. It was never performed in Weinberg's lifetime. As performed by the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra under the baton of Patrick Summers (playing to stage left of the smokestack set) this proved to be a complex, polyfaceted work, veering freely between full horns-and-strings bombast, pounding rhythms and lush vocal accompaniment. Like his mentor Shostakovich, Weinberg freely incorporates other musical idioms, from 20th century trad jazz to quotations from Humperdinck, Wagner and Bach.

Despite the questionable acoustic placement of the musicians, Weinberg's massive score was eclipsed by  the white-hot intensity of the story and the searing performances of the two female leads. As Liese, the ex-Nazi, Michelle Breedt's genteel exterior hid a past of wartime brutality. This is one of the great villain performances in recent years, displaying a formidable vocal range and the power and flexibility of a Strauss heroine. (There is even a moment where she begs her hapless husband to "judge" her that is straight out of Die Frau ohne Schatten.

The libretto (by Alexander Medvedev) is unflinching in its examination of Liese's wartime activities, displaying her treacherous, two-faced treatment of the prisoners. In uniform, Ms. Breedt recalls Lotte Lenya in From Russia, With Love,  a ruthless, uniformed figure with a creepy, sexual edge. She brings searing high notes and a caressing middle register that sets the teeth on edge, ramped up by the chromatic tension underneath her vocal line. Back on board the ship, Liese's insincere desire for some kind of forgiveness for her crimes gives her pathos but does not draw sympathy.

Standing opposite Liese was Marta (Melody Moore) the titular "passenger" whose experience of the camps is the opera's central plot arc. Marta is a Polish partisan, separated from her fiancée Tadeusz and trying desperately to protect her fellow prisoners from Liese's depredations and petty power plays. In the modern story, she is mostly mute serving as a Banquo-like reminder of Liese's crimes, appearing to trigger her memories and in the opera's climax, finally confronting her tormentor in a way that is both morally and dramatically satisfying. Even so, one is left unsure whether Marta actually survived.

The two leads were supported by a strong cast. Tenor Joseph Kaiser sang Walter, the newly minted ambassador who discovers what a monster he married. Morgan Smith was Tadeusz, the violin-playing lover of Marta whose decision to throw the music of Bach in the face of the waltz-loving camp commander has fatal consequences, but also provides the opera's most noble moment. Indeed, this may be a star-making performance for the Westchester-born baritone.

Sopranos Uliana Alexyuk and Kelly Kaduce led an ensemble of camp prisoners, beautiful voices working closely together to bring the light of music into the horror of their surroundings. Indeed, the sweet vocal ensembles are among the opera's best moments, recalling Weinberg's expertise as a writer of string quartets. These caged angels were all established as distinct personalities, working together against their Nazi oppressors and showing great personal courage as they passed notes, plucked flowers, celebrated Marta's birthday and struggled to survive.

Most of them didn't.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.