Last night I attended a performance by Houston Grand Opera forces of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s “The Passenger,” which was imported north under the auspices of Lincoln Center Festival. The Armory’s huge space was a perfect setting for the enormous multi-stage set designed by Johan Engels for this production conceived by David Pountney and conducted by Patrick Summers. This was the second of three presentations of this production at the Armory.
Prior to the opera performance, we had a chamber music program by members of the Canadian-based ARC Ensemble in the Armory’s Board Room. They have been using this newly-restored room for chamber music concerts for a few years now, but this was my first experience with it. The high ceilings and hard walls contribute to a very lively acoustic, producing sound of great immediacy but too much force. I thought that placing the piano and soloist on a high platform in the front of the room with fairly uncomfortable hard folding chairs set out in traditional rows was a bad idea. The platform was clearly designed with sightlines rather than acoustics in mind. The positioning combined with the acoustic of the room made the performances oppressively loud at time, and there was, at least from my seat, some shattering of sound in the higher range of the piano. A different program was presented on each of the three days of the opera performances. I heard Weinberg’s Violin Sonata No. 1 and Cello Sonata No. 2. Dianne Werner was the pianist for both pieces, Erika Raum the violin soloist, and So-Doo Park the cello soloist. The early violin sonata (1943), the composer’s Op. 12, predates the great expansion of depth in his music as a result of creative interaction with Dmitri Shostakovich over the course of his career, but it is difficult to know whether my ambivalent reaction to it was more due to the performance, the acoustic, or deficiencies in the music itself. Ms. Raum seemed a bit tentative in her performance, and there was a lack of dynamic variety, perhaps exacerbated by the acoustics. Yet, in the more mature Cello Sonata of 1958, Ms. Park managed to produce a much greater range of dynamics, including some genuinely quiet playing at appropriate moments. But this is a much finer piece, especially in the middle movement which is achingly beautiful. There is a huge catalogue of chamber music by Weinberg, and I hope performers will be taking up his best pieces with increasing frequency. I have been attended the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts programs for many years; they are mainly chamber music programs, but I don’t recall hearing much Weinberg over that time. His music deserves more exposure in acoustically supportive environments.
The Armory itself is not such an acoustically supportive environment, yet the set-up they used for “The Passenger,” assisted with some discreet electronic amplification, was just fine. The orchestra was seated at the far right of the performing space, with the huge unit set looming above them. The set was constructed with rail-tracks so that portions could be moved back and forth as necessary to make the ocean liner set or the concentration camp set (or to juxtapose the two).
“The Passenger” is set to a libretto by Alexander Medvedev based on a novel by Zofia Posmysz. Posmysz is a Polish Catholic journalist who was detailed as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Late in the 1950s while in Paris on assignment she was startled to think that a woman she spotted on the street may have been one of the guards in Auschwitz. Being a creative soul, she transformed that incident into this story, which reverses things. A German male diplomat and his younger wife are on an ocean liner heading to his posting in Brazil, when she spots a mysterious veiled passenger who appears to her like a concentration camp inmate whom she had guarded at Auschwitz. Prior to this time she had concealed her past from her husband, but her reaction to the sight of this passenger is so strong that he can’t help but notice, and she confesses and tells him the story, which is then illustrated in flashbook. The story rotates back and forth between the ocean liner and the concentration camp over the course of the opera. There are many dramatic high points. At the end there is some ambiguity, at least in the view of this observer, about whether the passenger was actually the prisoner or merely somebody who resembled her. The librettist and composer end the opera in such a way that one can question what is happening in the wife’s mind and what is real.
The music struck me as variable in its effectiveness as opera, but excellent in its effectiveness in underscoring the drama. They decided to perform it in English translation, with surtitles projected on screens, and the focus of the amplification was such that the titles were really only needed for what was sung, not for dialogue. There were quite a few moments of song that worked effectively for me as opera, but there were also stretches of sung dialogue that did not work quite as well. Weinberg’s income for much of his career was derived from writing film scores — more than 50 of them for Soviet films — and perhaps I am projecting from that in suggesting that the music frequently has a cinematic feel and at times seems to function more as “soundtrack” than in the central role the music would occupy in an opera. That said, I thought the piece worked very well as music drama, if not always so well as opera. I find my attention wandering from time to time at the opera, but not in this performance; the intensity of the drama kept me riveted throughout.
The performances were exceptional. The Houston Grand Opera Orchestra proved an exceptionally responsive and well-drilled group, with gorgeous work by the solo winds, percussionists meeting the high challenges posed by Weinberg, and strings sumptuous when called for by Summers, who clearly cares deeply about the score. Michelle Breedt was spectacular as the diplomat’s wife who recounts and re-enacts her experiences as a concentration camp guard, but even more extraordinary was Melody Moore as Marta, the mysterious passenger who portrays the young camp inmate at age 19 and gets some of the most beautiful music to sing. Joseph Kaiser was a bit underused as the diplomat, who is in some ways peripheral to the story. The most striking male performer was Morgan Smith as Tadeusz, an inmate musician who was Marta’s pre-war fiancé. But the entire cast seemed very dedicated to making the performance memorable, which it was.
This piece was never performed during the composer’s lifetime, as political problems prevented its planned productions, and was first performed only relatively recently. I doubt that it is a candidate for regular repertory status anywhere, but it was good to hear and I wish it were possible that the resources could be found to tour this production widely, although the logistical problems would undoubtedly be fierce.