The Passenger Sends Off Sparks With a Story You'll Never Forget

Unless composed by Richard Strauss or Benjamin Britten, 20th-century opera is fairly devoid of masterpieces. Considering that Strauss's last great opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten, was written in 1919, and Britten's enduring Billy Budd hails from 1951, the world of contemporary opera has had to wait a long time for anything that approaches these sublime musical achievements.

But Houston Grand Opera, in a co-production shared with Austria's Bregenzer Festspiele, Warsaw's Wielki Teatr, London's English National Opera and Madrid's Teatro Real, has exhumed, truly, a blazing if forgotten jewel that has smoldered in the Soviet archives for half a century. Perfectly forged in a hauntingly affecting production, Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger (1968) gleams. It sends off sparks, dangerous and spiky, yet burns with unforgiving radiance. "Never forget" it cries. "Never forgive."

I can hear you operaphiles a mile away. Who the hell is Mieczyslaw Weinberg? I'm glad you asked, for his story is grand opera enough for anyone.

Born in 1919 Warsaw, Weinberg, a child prodigy, was conducting and writing music by the time he was ten years old. His parents were influential members of Poland's Yiddish theater. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Weinberg had recently graduated from the prestigious Warsaw Conservatory. He escaped toward the only feasible direction: the east into Soviet Russia, which had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. After a harrowing ordeal he managed to cross the border, but lost three of his most sacred identities: his family, who all were later exterminated at the Trawniki concentration camp; his country, which he never saw again; and his name, which a bored border guard changed to Moishe. "Moishe, Abraham, I don't care," he confronted the befuddled guard, "just let me in!"

He settled in Minsk, continued his studies and composed operas, but when the Nazis invaded Russia, he and fellow artists were relocated again, farther east, to Tashkent in central Asia, the capital of Uzbekistan, where a commune of fellow artists had been established. There he met and married the daughter of the director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater. Through intermediaries, he sent his Symphony No 1 to Russia's pre-­eminent composer, Dmitri Shostakovitch — famous, feted and previously denounced by the authorities for his music's "formalism." Shostakovitch immediately saw Weinberg's potential, mentored him and became his lifelong friend. After Shostakovitch pulled po­litical strings, Weinberg moved in 1943 to Moscow, where he remained the rest of his life.

Professional life in Moscow wasn't easy for this outsider. Although he was a prodigiously prolific composer (26 symphonies, 17 string quartets, ten operas, seven concertos, numerous songs, a Requiem, two ballets, and incidental music for at least 65 films, plays and various circus performances), his work was contained behind the iron curtain. His most famous piece — the one most Russians know — is his harpsichord-infused score for a series of animated Winnie the Pooh cartoons.

He ground on, though, even when eclipsed under the shadow of his beloved Shostakovitch and the international Russian Sergei Prokofiev. He almost lost his life in 1953 when Stalin implemented the infamous "Doctors' Plot," yet another anti-Jewish pogrom, in which Weinberg's father-in-law was assassinated, and Weinberg was arrested on trumped-up charges for "Jewish bourgeois nationalism" and thrown in jail. He parried with his interrogators: "Since I don't know a single letter of Yiddish but own two thousand books in Polish, shouldn't that be Polish bourgeois nationalism?" The death of Stalin and Shostakovitch's unselfish intervention, at peril to his own safety, got Weinberg out. Weinberg blithely went back to work writing music.

The Passenger was already in rehearsal at the Bolshoi when the authorities clamped down and censored it. They didn't want the past dredged up, not even the Nazi past, and especially not the Jewish/Nazi past. Focus on Russia, not the Jews, they implied. Weinberg never heard his opera performed. A concert version played in Moscow in 2006, but Weinberg was ten years dead by then.

Director David Pountney, former director of productions at English National Opera, heard snippets of Weinberg's opera, was enthralled and followed the leads until he got his hands on the opera's manuscript. A devotee of forgotten or neglected operas, he knew he had found a winner. It was his world-premiere production, with sets by Johan Engles, that blew away the Bregenz Festival audience in 2010. This is the production now at the Wortham. This July, HGO's production arrives at the Lincoln Center Festival. I predict quite a whirlwind in NYC after this exceptional show.

Based on Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz's 1959 radio play and subsequent 1962 novel, Alexander Medvedev's libretto is chillingly theatrical. Weinberg's music is not easy listening. You won't leave humming his jagged melodies, but you'll be guaranteed a piercing, heart-wrenching time at the theater. This is drama with a capital D. Visceral and pounding, the music tears into you with screaming trumpets, crashing tympani and snare drums that crackle like machine-gun fire, or it softly belies the hellish place with simple folk tunes strummed on ethereal high strings and celeste, ersatz German waltzes, a whispy fragment that parodies Britten's Sea Interludes and Bach's Chaconne in D. It's the perfect embodiment of the harrowing story. The harsh, dissonant music doesn't tell the story, it is the story.

On a ship to Brazil accompanied by her German diplomat husband, Walter (tenor Joseph Kaiser), Liese (mezzo Michelle Breedt, who sang the role at the Bregenz world premiere) is haunted by the appearance of a mysterious woman who looks exactly like Marta (soprano Melody Moore), an ­Auschwitz prisoner who was murdered under Liese's watch as an SS overseer years earlier. Anguished, Liese confesses her past to her husband and they both try to make the best of it, hoping that Marta is not who Liese imagines. We never discover if the mystery woman is Marta or only a figment of Liese's overheated guilt, but in a terrifying coup de théâtre, the horrors of the most infamous of concentration camps roll into view beneath the pristine whiteness of the ship above. Searchlights scan the blighted landscape. A male chorus sits above the railroad cars like a modern Greek chorus, commenting on the action in breathless, hushed tones. Death, brutality, inhumanity are everywhere. There is no escape. Who will ever know they were here? As Liese is drawn ever downward by her memories, the victims come into high relief.

The Passenger is HGO's watershed. Weinberg's forgotten opera is everything contemporary opera should be: exquisitely crafted; conducted with heavenly warmth and demonic power by maestro Patrick Summers; conjured into heartbreaking life by director Pountney and his team of scenic wizards; and deliciously sung by all (Moore, who appears this April as Freia, goddess of youth, in Wagner's Das Rheingold, is exceptionally radiant as obstinate, unconquerable Marta, as is the powerhouse chorus, male and female, under chorus master Richard Bado). Please don't be put off by the gloom and horror of the Auschwitz subject. The opera rejoices in hope and remembrance. Harsh and unforgiving, it's a shattering experience.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover