Sunday, March 08, 2015

From Darkest Depths of Inhumanity, Lyric's 'The Passenger' Reaches a Place of Beauty and Light -- Chicago Opera Review

Opera Review

The Passenger
by Mieczyslaw Weinberg
Libretto by Alexander Medvedev
Based on the book by Zofia Posmysz
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House
Thru March 15 (Perfs 3/9, 12, 15)

In the summer of 2013, I went to Auschwitz.

This was part of a European vacation that saw me spend a wonderful few days in nearby Krakow--as well as London, Vienna, Budapest and Paris--but touring the worst place on Earth was far from a tertiary objective.

I am Jewish, although I am not observant, nor do I have any known relatives who died in the Holocaust--or directly survived it.

And while I grew up in and live in Skokie, which has been home to many Holocaust survivors--a group of whom created the Illinois Holocaust Museum in the village--I have never personally known any.

Yet for whatever confluence of stimuli provided the impetus, I acutely wanted to visit Auschwitz, perhaps to somehow pay respects to those who had perished there, but also to possibly further my sense of understanding--impossible though it may be--and perspective, given how the German concentration camp represents the deepest depravity mankind has ever known.

While, as I wrote here, I actually found the tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau to be less troubling than I imagined--due in part to the rigor marole of being rushed through buildings between other tour groups--seeing collections of victims' shoes, eyeglasses, hair and ashes was certainly devastating, especially as the personal belongings looked essentially familiar to those seen more nowadays.

It reminded me that what happened was--all things considered--rather recent, and many of the victims
similar in age to my own relatives.

Yet despite how harrowing it was to visit such a horrible place, I'm glad I did. 

And I'm also glad I attended--especially with a Lyric Opera discount offer that put me in a seat on the main floor for just $32--a performance of The Passenger, an opera about the Holocaust.

It might sound semantically incredulous to describe such an opera--which features singing in multiple languages--as enjoyable, but along with being challenged, saddened, angered and enlightened, I was genuinely entertained.

I have now seen nearly 50 operas, including many of the most famed and acclaimed--La Bohème, La Traviata, The Magic Flute, Carmen, Aida, The Merry Widow, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Don Giovanni and more--and my de facto comment is usually this:

I appreciate opera as an art form, immensely admire its practitioners and acknowledge its beauty. I have liked most of the operas I've seen, but have rarely loved them or--perhaps more tellingly--have never really "felt" opera as I do a great rock concert or Broadway musical.

Truth be told, I likely struggle with the language barrier posed by most operas--despite English translations being provided on supertitles and my having no problems with foreign films--but despite the musical splendors invariably offered by the likes of Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, et. al., the librettos of "great operas" often tend to be slight, silly, farcical and/or not all that compelling as narrative.

Photo credit: E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune
Thus, despite the unavoidable darkness of The Passenger--albeit intermingled with light and hope--I actually appreciated an opera with rather substantive characters and storytelling.

Based on a novella of the same name by Zofia Posmysz, a still-living non-Jewish Pole who spent 3 years at Auschwitz, the opera composed by Mieczyslaw Weinberg with a libretto by Alexander Medvedev echoes Posmysz' remembrances, albeit with a dramatic twist she had incorporated into her storytelling. (See this Chicago Tribune article by Howard Reich for an excellent account of Posmysz' experiences and the development of The Passenger as an opera.) 

Reversing a real-life episode in which Posmysz feared a casual encounter with an Auschwitz overseer named Annaliese Franz years after the war--it turned out the eerily recognizable voice she heard belonged to someone else--the opera opens its story with a similar scenario, but from the overseer's perspective.

The overseer's real name is kept in the opera, but primarily shortened to Liese (performed by Daveda Karanas). In the early 1960s, Liese is sailing to Brazil with her husband Walter (Brandon Jovanovich), a German diplomat who has been newly stationed there.

On the ship's deck, she sees a veiled woman she believes to be Marta (wonderfully played by Amanda
Majeski), a Polish prisoner who had not only be under her watch at Auschwitz, but whom she thought to have been killed at her command. (Marta is essentially the characterization of Zofia Posmysz, albeit with some fictionalization.)

Utilizing a brilliant design by Johan Engels--created for the opera's 2010 premiere in Austria--which represents the cruise ship on top and Auschwitz underneath, The Passenger proceeds to portray Marta's grim experience in the camp, including unpleasant interactions with Liese, and even graver destinies of many of the women she befriends there, Jewish and otherwise.

While far from upbeat, the death camp scenes aren't as macabre or maudlin as one might presume, as the prisoners' courage, camaraderie, solidarity, support and aplomb is front and center, with arias of conviction and dignity featuring prominently in Weinberg's fine score.

Though lost on my "anything other than English is equally non-understood" ears, a nice touch is how the opera has the inmates sing in their native tongues, including Russian, German, Polish, Yiddish, French and Czech. (I presume Liese & Walter sing in German.)

This was my first encounter with the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish origin, who lost most of his family in the Holocaust. In the 1960s, Weinberg was encouraged to write The Passenger after his friend, famed Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, had read Pozmysz' novella.

The opera was set to debut in Russia in 1968, but for political reasons, this didn't happen.

As you're hopefully gleaning, the backstory of The Passenger opera is nearly as intriguing as the piece itself, and along with Reich's terrific Tribune story on Posmysz, I'm glad I attended the pre-performance talk conducted by Jesse Gram, the Audience Education Manager for Lyric Unlimited, an entity that aims to widen opera's cultural reach through various initiatives.

It seems quite likely that without the pre-show briefer, the press I read and the synopsis printed in the Lyric program, I may have been rather confused about some of the details transpiring onstage.

For example--while opting to remain somewhat vague--late in Act II, Tadeuz (Joshua Hopkins), an Auschwitz inmate who is Marta's fiance, is ordered by the Commandant to play a piece on violin. Though it should be obvious to classical aficionados of any rank, I well may have missed that Tadeuz played a composition other than requested--and the significance of it.

Photo of author Zofia Posmysz at the Civic Opera House,
by Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Also, while Weinberg's score seemed excellent to me, with some nice variances in sonic styles--including a Greek chorus of sorts singing in English, for which director David Pountney likely deserves considerable credit--even to my untrained ear, this isn't an opera with musical delights on par with Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Bizet, Richard Strauss or likely others.

In other words, with relative modernity in terms of style and story, and probably music as well, The Passenger isn't the grandest of operas in the traditional sense.

But I think that's why I liked it so much.

As of this writing, three performances remain, this Monday, Thursday and next Sunday, March 15. Discount tickets have been popping up on HotTix, but you should probably also check the Lyric Opera box office.

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