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Split personality. Liking the arts, especially opera, and hockey and Los Toros. I know, I know THAT one is non pc currently. But I can't help it saw some in Spain and got hooked, but good. But on the other hand right now opera and hockey are in the forefront!

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Friday, January 17, 2014

The Passenger-a searing musical portrait of (in)humanity

This co-production of Bregenz, Warsaw, ENO, Madrid is currently being performed at HGO.  It is a new(ish) work, composed by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, libretto by Alexander Medvedev which David Pountney translated rather well into English. It is performed with surtitles.  But IMO they are rarely needed, since the enunciation of most singers is outstanding and 96% understandable. I was privileged to attend the final dress rehearsal, which went smoothly. Opening night is Saturday 1/18. I'll be out of town then so am publishing it this morning.

A brief description of its plot: Fifteen years after the end of the war, a German diplomatic couple (Walter and Liese) are on a liner for Brazil where he is to take up an embassy position. On the ship there, too, is a mysterious veiled woman. Liese seems to recognize her as one of the inmates in Auschwitz where Liese (aged 22) served as a camp guard.
Several acts are devoted to camp life.
Female prisoners from all over Europe are found there, each one reacting in her own way to the horrors around her. One apparently has gone mad, another teams up with a very young girl in lieu of her own daughter. Their nationalities are: Czech, Polish, Russian (a partisan), French and Tessalonikan. One is identified as Jewish, some others seem to be catholic, especially Bronka.
The heroine, Marta (that mysterious passenger), by chance, encounters her finance Tadeusz, who, we learn is involved in the camp underground and in touch with Katya, the Russian partisan.
The plot gets a bit thicker. Liese wants Marta to become her confidante vis-a-vis the other prisoners, and offers Marta and Tadeusz a chance to meet. Both are resolved not to give Liese any hold on them.
While these flashbacks to camp life take place, on an upper level we see Walter and Liese attempting to participate in ship's social life. Liese has told Walter now all about her camp life. And Walter, after an initial revulsion, has accepted it and excusing it now supports her.
But then the "Passenger" asks the band (on a 3.level) to play a waltz.
And Liese breaks down completely. It is the waltz the camp commandant has demanded Tadeusz play for him on the violin, which Tadeusz does not do, and so is sent to his death. As - it seemed - is Marta.
The opera ends with the 'modern' Marta's demand 'never forgive nor forget'!

Now the cast requires some very strong performances by 9 female voices.
And HGO found them, voices with convincing acting prowess.
Michelle Breedt -above - (HGO debut) sings Liese with a flexible Mezzo and seemingly personal conviction in the world she inhabits on stage.
Melody Moore is Marta with strong and confident delivery.
Victoria Livengood - quite excellent as the madwoman.
Yvette, the French youngster, is sung with a clear high soprano by Uliana Alexyuk (HGOStudio).
Vlasta is sung by another HGOStudio member, Carolyn Sproule.
Krystyna is performed by Natalya Romaniw (Studio member).
Bronka, the older woman adopting the youngster Yvette is sung with moving expression by Kathryn Day.
Agnieszka Rehlis (debut) sings a few lines as the Jewish girl (is she the one from Tessalonika?).

Kelly Kaduce - above - (debut) whom I have seen and heard in  Anna Karenina, Tan Dun's Tea and as Margaret Garner, sings Katya with complete confidence and beautiful phrasing.. her solo, unaccompanied for the most part by orchestra, of the Babushka song is truly stunning!
Cheryl Parish (also seen in Show Boat at HGO) is the senior overseer who has just a few lines as well.
All other characters, in camp, and on ship, as well as in the, all MALE onlookers in modern dress (why they are there is still, IMO, a mystery, they do not really do much for the plot - perhaps they are to be us, the audience, but why only males?), are taken by chorus members with no solo lines, some are even silent.
As you can see, the females are dominant in this work.

Joseph Kaiser - above as Ravenal in HGO's Show Boat - Walter, is convincing and uses his suave voice well. 
Morgan Smith - debut (of Starbuck fame -Moby Dick seen by me in Dallas) sings Tadeusz with feeling. His orchestra double actually plays the violin.
James Maddalena has 2 cameo roles with a few lines, mostly just spoken.
Robert Pomakov as the first guard, and
Peixin Chen and Kevin Ray (both Studiomembers) as 2. and 3. guard acquit themselves quite honorably.
I am not sure who plays the Commandant, whose brief appearance in scene 5/act 2 is the cause for Tadeusz' death.

 I have searched for some videos.. and found this of another composition by Weinberg

Now to my personal impressions. Not being a musician, I cannot write about the difficulties which lie in the score. I have been told that some seems almost impossible. And yet the orchestra and the singers do it real justice.
It is above all a great theatrical drama with hugely excellent singing.
Maestro Summers knows the score and guides the team well.
Music: mostly accessible, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes very lyrical. IMO, it paints musical pictures of the horrors, but of beauty as well.
Staging and set are impressive, sadly I fear, people in balcony and high Grand Tier seats will not see the third level (orchestra) and maybe even part of the second level. The set is built very tall! Lighting is appropriate to action and scenery. A bit of stumbling around the camp ground makes the prisoners' exhaustion even more plausible.

Was I moved? Yes, to some extent I was, mostly due to the truly superb acting singers.

But having studied this period in history, and read as much as is available in English and German, I was somewhat disappointed. Or maybe, like so many of us, I have become desensitized to violence and horrors by what is thrown at us daily on television and the web. Perhaps.

Did I think the piece biased?  Not really.  The composer, IMO, tried his best to tell the story as seen from the standpoint of a younger Liese, whose experiences must be taken in context of the times.
Befehl ist Befehl - order is order!

And yet, nothing is ever just pure black and white.
But still, it should be seen as grave warning to humanity.  If it works in these days of increasing insensitivity to suffering, of spontaneous killings may they be government sanctioned, or acts by crazed (?) individuals, I simply do not know. And who really can?
Maybe...at least I hope it will open some eyes and hearts!


And here some comments, overheard on the way out:
"High drama but not really an opera".
"Would have liked it better as a ballet."
"How P.C. is that, before HGO is doing Wagner."
"I am surprised that it did not affect me as much."


Well, best you see it yourself. 
I can guarantee the singing and acting is fantastic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You nailed it:
excellent performers, set, lighting, the tone of the music is definitely spot-on text-painting. It would garner a large following (I think) if it were a (small) foreign film instead of an opera - although I must admit, The Passenger is a WORK of art, an overwhelming WORK/opera/opus.
I also wondered about the male' suits' who remained 'above it all.' I saw them as an impotent turba chorus (AKA Greek Chorus): either of observers outside of Germany at the time, or maybe today's audience, removed from the scene by the passage of time.. Their presence was not convincing enough for me to think they were even needed.
And for me, the bottom line is that it will be the very rare person who will go see it a second time or insist friends go see it.
Still, I am glad I went and that I stayed for all of it.