Acclaim for Weinberg's 'The Passenger' at English National Opera

Acclaim for Weinberg's 'The Passenger' at English National Opera
"I shall never tire of the opera The Passenger by M. Weinberg.  I have heard it three times already and have studied the score.  Besides, I understood the beauty and enormity of this music better and better on each occasion.  It is a perfect masterpiece…”
Dmitri Shostakovich, Moscow, September 1974

Mieczys┼éaw Weinberg (1919-96) was one of the most important composers to have emerged in the Soviet Union in the last century.  A Jewish emigré who fled from war-torn Poland (where the rest of his family were killed), his substantial output encompasses 7 operas, a Requiem, 22 symphonies, 17 string quartets as well as a large number of other orchestral works, ballets, chamber, instrumental, choral, vocal and film music. 

Of these over 150 works, though, it was his opera The Passenger (1967-8) that Weinberg considered to be his finest achievement.  A harrowing tale (after the novel by Zofia Posmysz), it revolves around a chance post-war encounter on an ocean liner – between a former Auschwitz guard and one of her prisoners.  Following its first ever staged performance in Bregenz in 2010, English National Opera are giving the UK premiere performances of The Passenger, commencing 19 September 2011 and running until 25 October (8 performances in total).  David Pountney’s production, to be conducted by Sir Richard Armstrong, is being co-produced with Bregenz Festival, Austria, Wielki Teatr, Warsaw and Teatro Real, Madrid.
Faber Music Ltd is the exclusive UK/Eire hire agent for Peermusic Classical, Weinberg’s publisher.

'Although David Pountney’s superbly well judged production offers three unremittingly dark and often agonisingly slow hours in the theatre, it should not be missed. Johan Engel’s split level set brilliantly captures the duality of the story…heartbreaking scenes of love and courage…
The climax musically and emotionally comes when Marta’s proud violinist fiancé, Tadeusz, sung with compelling anger by Leigh Melrose, is ordered to play the camp commandant’s favourite tacky waltz, but instead strikes up Bach’s magnificent Chaconne…  a supremely symbolic confrontation - Germany at its noblest confronting Germany at its foulest.
It’s an opera teeming with overt references, from haunting Russian folksong to blaring German marches, as well as astringent string writing reminiscent of Britten…  under Richard Armstrong’s dependable baton there are many striking performances…It is a compelling historical document that demanded an airing - lest we forget.’
The Times (Richard Morrison),  20 September 2011
'The Passenger is perhaps the boldest artistic take ever on the Holocaust…‘Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Holocaust opera… [is]one of the most unflinching engagements with this subject ever made… [it]demands attention. And risky though it may be to label a first production “definitive”, it is hard to imagine it ever being done better. Johan Engels’s set counts among the most impressive seen on the Coliseum stage, potent in its symbolism and ingenious in its layered integration of Auschwitz with a ship’s deck above.
Weinberg’s music is…distinctive…and while sharing some “Soviet common currency” with Shostakovich, he also makes remarkable use of quotations – above all, the Bach Chaconne with which the violinist Tadeusz seals his own fate. It is so well scored that every word of Pountney’s translation comes across here under the muscular baton of Richard Armstrong.
ENO’s large cast is led by the mezzo Michelle Breedt as Liese, rich of tone and deeply inside the ambiguous character. Giselle Allen gives a shining performance as Marta; Kim Begley and Leigh Melrose are strong as Walter and Tadeusz; and the important smaller parts are vividly handled.'

The Telegraph (John  Allison), 23 September 2011

‘David Pountney's exceptional production, brought from the Bregenz Festival, moves fluently, as does the action of the opera itself, between ocean liner and death camp: the former gleaming white, the latter an unspeakably grim hellhole.
Much of the long first act recalls jagged Shostakovich, tender yet anguished Bartok and muscular Hindemith,… Act Two… adds new dimensions: neo-Romantic lyricism which together with jazz band music and Russian folksong creates a fractured but powerfully expressive synthesis.
The appearance onstage at the end of the 86-year-old Zofia Posmysz was as moving as anything in this searing, unmissable work.’
London Evening Standard (Barry Millington), 20 September 2011
'…  music and drama come together to compelling effect.  The solidarity of the female inmates, and their despair when several of their companions are selected for extermination, is truly stomach-churning, and the dramatic climax, when Tadeusz defies the camp commandant's order to play his favourite waltz and instead invokes the consoling strains of Bach's great Chaconne - confronting Germany at its most degraded with German art at its most exalted - is a shattering coup.  It is at times like this that opera's synthesis of music and drama works its most powerful spell.'
The Sunday Times (Hugh Canning), 25 September 2011

'Everything about the history of The Passenger is extraordinary…  As we re-enter the horrific past, Liese and her husband are forced to revaluate everything. The result, in Pountney’s highly charged, two-level staging, provides a bleak yet potent visual experience.
Weinberg’s score shows the influences of Shostakovich and Britten.  It has moments of great impact, vividly brought out under conductor Richard Armstrong…  the cast, led by Michelle Breedt’s tireless Liese and Giselle Allen’s committed Marta, give it their all.  In the evening’s final extraordinary gesture, 88-year-old Posmysz herself is acclaimed at her curtain-call.’
The Stage (George Hall),  Tuesday 20 September 2011
‘Johan Engel’s set design is brilliant…Weinberg's score is powerful and versatile, ranging from a convincing musical migraine when Annaliese sees Marta for the first time to a banal waltz epitomising the camp commandant's lack of musical taste.
The cast looked utterly drained at the end… thanks to their total commitment… If you are looking for a good evening's entertainment… a truly gripping, harrowing, emotional experience, The Passenger is just about as good as it gets.'
The Express(William Hartston), 22 September 2011

‘…an opera suppressed for almost half a century is about to command the stage for many years to come…Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 1968 work The Passenger is something very close to a masterpiece. Weinberg’s music is compelling and intensely his own…the score has Weinberg’s thumbprint as a watermark through and through. Harrowing as any Holocaust opera must be – and this is the ultimate Auschwitz opera – there is a plethora of rich and tender moments, along with plenty of human conundra. The Passenger is an opera that demands to be seen – more than once, if possible.' (Norman Lebrecht), September 2011

'The music is most effective when at its sparest, thinned down to single lines to support the declamatory voices.  That's when Weinberg's close association with Shostakovich is most obvious.
… [Pountney's]  production, in Johan Engels's fine split-level set – decks of the liner above, rail tracks of Auschwitz below – can't be faulted.  Neither can the cast: Giselle Allen as Marta, Michelle Breedt  as Lisa, with Leigh Melrose as Tadeusz and Kim Begley as Lisa's husband Walter, together with a superbly observed gallery of smaller roles.’
The Guardian (Andrew Clements),  20 September 2011

‘These people [Weinberg and Posmysz] have a right to write about [it]…  And they have proved this through the intelligence and subtlety with which they have described something that they knew first hand.  It’s quite different from someone deciding to write a new Auschwitz opera now…  (The Passenger is) the most significant opera composed in the Russian language since Prokofiev’s War and Peace.'
The Independent (Jessica Duchen),  16 September 2011
'It’s immensely powerful…  the tautness of the writing and the pertinence of everything – Weinberg was a born theatrical composer.  It’s astonishing, the gentleness of its message.'
Sir Richard Armstrong (conductor)
'Now…  that the secret is truly out [following suppression by Stalin in the Soviet Union when it was written in 1968]… with English National Opera hosting the UK premiere, we can surely hope that its reputation will spread.
The opera meditates on living in – and surviving – Auschwitz, from the perspective of both oppressor and oppressed. When Walther learns of Liese’s past his first concern is for his reputation, while Liese’s own proclamations see guilt mixed with self-justification.  In the camp we gain personal insights into the characters from numerous backgrounds whom the Nazis simply lumped together as undesirable or sub-human.
Michelle Breedt, Kim Begley and Giselle Allen excel as Liese, Walther and Marta, but the most intriguing aspect is Weinburg’s music itself. It is not quite minimalist or atonal, although those terms provide a general impression, and there are some ‘jazzed up’ moments and passages of searing beauty.  It may not be the most accessible score for first time opera-goers, but you will not need to be any type of opera specialist to be bowled over by the potency, or won over by the sheer intensity, of The Passenger.’
Londonist (Sam Smith), 21 September 2011
'[David Pountney]… describes the opera as “incredibly powerful”. While the music has a “profound kind of melancholia”…  Weinberg is acutely restrained in musical terms about the awful inevitability of the camp.
Shostakovich tried in vain to get The Passenger staged, writing that he would “never tire” of it: “It is a perfect masterpiece…  The music…  stirs the very soul…  I understand this opera as a hymn to humanity”.’
The Observer ( Dalya Alberge),  18 September 2011
‘In a final scene…  the two women, overseer and prisoner, are isolated on stage.  “Do not forgive them, never, ever”, repeats Marta. One wondered what her creator, Zofia Posmysz, was thinking as she arrived on stage to a standing ovation.’
The Independent (Edward Seckerson),  20 September 2011
‘Holocaust opera with impeccable artistic credentials in first-class UK premiere’
‘[ This opera]… works above all thanks to two superb lead performances and a host of telling ensemble contributions. 
A finer, more secure voice than Michelle Breedt's hasn't been heard at ENO.
Giselle Allen as Marta is ‘ strong enough to sustain the big memorial song Weinberg sets to bittersweet verses in Act 2, and the Brittenish epilogue, Marta's final quiet triumph many years later by the banks of a wide river, is as moving as it can be.
[There are many]… moving solos  ‘in the women's barracks, realistic in the sense that prayers and ballads would indeed have been sung by the inmates to keep each other's spirits alive.  Simple as the text by Weinberg's preferred librettist Alexander Medvedev may be, its reiteration here of the human wish to imagine freedom rings true.
…what a feat this was in mid-1960s Soviet life, and what a debt of honour to the family ghosts who presumably never gave Weinberg a moment's peace.  ENO have done him, and Posmysz - whose novella still cries out for English translation - very proud indeed.  Honour them in turn by going to see a genuine labour of love.’
The Arts Desk (David Nice),  20 September 2011
'Weinberg’s opera The Passenger has…  jazz, dance hall, folksong, Brittenesque traceries[sic], punch-in-the-stomach volleys…
Thanks to the theatrical antennae of ENO’s conductor, Richard Armstrong, we can… respect Weinberg’s soulful music, and the casting is immaculate.  Michelle Breedt’s Lisa makes a riveting pivot, the work of a true singing actor; Giselle Allen’s Marta wrenches the heart.'
Financial Times (Andrew Clark), 20 September 2011
'One of the most striking and effective opera sets I've ever seen, both framing the action and adding colour.  Many details add emotional resonance: the pervasive railway tracks, or the follow spotlights operated by camp guards on watchtowers.
This is a music drama in which the music is distinctly subservient to the drama, and Mieczyslaw Weinberg's score has a huge amount to recommend it.  Weinberg fled Nazi Poland to the USSR and became friends with Shostakovich, who greatly admired The Passenger.  His style has a great deal in common with Shostakovich: it's equally mercurial, dragging in elements from a dozen different styles.  It's also strong in providing melody and harmony in ways that are interesting and engaging to the ear without explicitly following the rules either of 19th century romanticism or 20th century atonality. I enjoyed many passages, but most of all, I was impressed by the sparse orchestration and how Weinberg ensures that every phrase enhances the stage action of its particular moment.  At the climax of the opera, the music takes centre stage in an effect that hits you like a thunderbolt.
Director David Pountney draws acting performances of the highest quality from a large cast.  The most outstanding of the singers were Kim Begley as Walter, whose voice was rich and powerful and whose characterisation totally believable, and Michelle Breedt as Anneliese, whose voice was continuously enjoyable and who gave a riveting exploration of character nuances.  The role of Marta seems very challenging vocally, and although Giselle Allen dealt with it technically and gave an excellent acting performance.
Overall, this is an excellent production of a superb piece of drama and a fascinating, varied piece of music, which leaves you drained and emotionally wrung out.  I think it would be a great work for lovers of theatre who don't necessarily see themselves as opera fans.  Sadly, the opera was banned during Weinberg's lifetime, but it's a privilege to be able to see it now.’
Bachtrack (David Karlin), 19 September 2011