By Adam Ramet
October 15, 2011
I went last night and found this one of the finest things I’ve seen. Most present-day perceptions of the Holocaust in the arts are narratives about triumph over adversity, deservingness, deliverance, forgivnesses, resolution and closure. The core message of this opera goes to a very different place however. Pountney does give something that on stage may superficially look visually like an operatic Schindlers List for those who find the deeper message uncomfortable but Medvedev’s stark message is there. In the programme book – which best to read after the show not before – read the preface to the work written by Shostakovich who also found that after a third reading he seriously got to understand the work and its message.
The issues in this opera are not about anti-Jewish Nazism at all. None of the main characters are Jewish at all and this is an uncomfortable truth for modern audiences to ruminate. Non-Jewish reviewers have found it hard to pigeon-hole this as some Jewish-owned-holocaust Jew-written opera. Jewish reviewers seem lost also as they too have been caught off guard. Unlike a lot of the current publicity and present-day Holocaust perception this is not about regular forgiveness although for some of the characters they may wish it was. There is no resolution for these characters. The gulf that divides perpetrator and victim is too great.
All along you are sort of lead to believe that it is indeed Martha, Liese’s victim, on the ship. Yet, it is never actually revealed that it is. Liese never approaches the woman she thinks is Martha. She’ll send the porter to find out details (which never confirm unequivocally it to be Martha) and Liese’s husband also stops himself from confronting the mystery woman (preventing himself from confronting truths were it indeed Martha). Despite all of her melodrama and anguish over the mystery woman, the perpetrator Liese clearly just wants personal deliverance without confronting her past. We, as post-Holocaust observers, expect a warm fuzzy resolution like Schindler’s List so hope and imagine it is indeed Martha. But Medvedev has set a comfort zone trap for us.
You can see, though most won’t want to, that Martha actually never interacts with Liese on the upper ship set (the real-time now). Is Liese’s desire for forgiveness and resolution genuine? No, she really only seeks it from Marta. All the others were just “enemies of the state” so she cares not about them. She never sees people who remind her of those. But Martha “the Madonna of the barracks” – only she will surely provide Liese with that self-indulgent latter-day warm fuzzy religious paradox and allegorical closure Liese so craves and prays for. And she’ll save her husband’s reputation and job also. Her concerns are entirely selfish. The perpetrator, Liese, expects forgiveness – and chattering-class audiences expect it to be given too. And this is how you are led through the first half and most of the second act.
The victims however …well, the victims are all dead as I read it. And that’s the twist. Except it isn’t a twist – it’s reality. Almost all of the holocaust’s victims are simply dead unable to tell their tale. The first people who knew the story of the first dead and were told to pass it on, they too were murdered and so on. Occassional notes-in-a-bottle have turned up at concentration camps and there is the Anne Frank Diary but the reality is that these are just a half-dozen five minute glimpses into ten million tragedies. Of the millions that were murdered there deliberately was left no onward story to tell so complete was the destruction of the victims on every level. Every aspect of their humanity was reduced to the atomic infinitesimal. Thus the dead cannot scream “never forgive never forget”. This is why there is time spent on minor characters in the first act. Some reviewers didn’t see why time is spent on these characters when they don’t go anywhere, they begrudge the time spent on them. But this is to miss the point. The opera for them is not one where some latter-day post-Holocaust warm cozy inter-faith 21st-century group hug resolution discovers their deaths not to have been in vain. No, it is a black abyss of a gap. Their tune here is not where their notes are but rather where they aren’t. These characters don’t go anywhere because they can’t – they get murdered. This is so uncomfortably against convention for triumph-over-adversity deliverance-type narratives that critics feel the wheels leave the track in being led across this territory by Medvedev and Weinberg though without perhaps realizing why there was suddenly nothing beneath the wheels.
The very final scene is also designed to trick the modern viewer back to their comforting assumptions of deliverance. Indeed, you too can, if you willfully disregard all the clues, imagine like Liese that somehow, things did work out for Martha, that somehow she escaped and found peace or that the two talked things through after the final scene ends. But, this a trap for the audience.
There is no ambiguity offering the prospect of any comforting closure – for Medvedev just wants you to explore how bourgouis and liberal chattering-class you are. Simply either you engage in wishful thinking for a happy end or you won’t. If you hope all worked out well you morally become the same as the perpetrator expecting forgivness for the unforgivable at a small cost of ignoring the inconvenient truths that really you know Martha is actually dead.
If you confront the cold reality of the final scene – Liese doesn’t interact directly to Martha – it is plain Martha indeed is dead all along, there is no twist. Worse, Liese knew at the back of her mind Martha could “never forgive never forget” right from the outset as she was dead. Liese, having the luxury of being alive, just indulgently engages in mental gymnastics vainly re-imagining herself as a victim and engaging in bankrupt moral equivalency. This itself shows that Liese, hitherto a vain stupid lost and naïve woman, is actually just as horrific a monster as all the rest of the Nazis she’s tried to imagine herself away from. She sits silently in her finery uncomprehending the true depths of her moral depravity as the scene plays out. The scene and music ends gently fading away into blackness.
If you, as an audience member, hope these characters found peace themselves one way or another Medvedev shows you how you’ve just dragged yourself down to Liese’s moral level trying to excuse past wrongs by self-indulgently trying to create meanings.
The message is that crimes which go against basic humanity are inexcusable on even the lowest levels. No religion-inspired paradox or allegory or revisionist view can excuse or explain murder apart from black-and-white seeing it for what it is. Neither does it matter who the victims are, Jewish or otherwise. The issues are black and white – as indeed is the set essentially. The upper ocean liner set being white is where Liese wants to be yet her past drags her back down to the black.
The clue as to what the opera is really about is in its very first opening lines and also the very closing ones. But I will let you listen closely and discover those for yourself!
Musically this stands alone. Is it Shostakovich pastiche? No. It’s Weinberg. Reviewers have simply not heard enough Weinberg hence compare it with his contemporaries. In the program they compare it with Britten – despite the very first line of their comparison admitting Britten never met Weinberg nor is there evidence either of them knew eachothers music.
The score is incredibly subtle throughout. There are no cheap thrills whatever some reviewers say. Having seen this I seriously doubt some of them genuinely sat though a live performance at ENO but likely half watched the 2010 premiere DVD whilst typing something else. There’s unusual things in the score too and I counted 8 percussionists playing at one point though percussion just points up parts here and there and doesn’t go full tilt throughout. The orchestration is beautiful and the strings writing is awesome. Listen out for the raspingly loud low sustained tuba notes. Some of this slightly echoes 1960s works like Fellini’s “Otto e Mezzo” with flashback and musically, although far far further out than Nino Rota, there are deliciously angular ’60s jazzy moments for some ship-bound action.
As a new work the staging is apt and works very well. You need to think about it a few days after seeing it to better understand it. Being a new work there are many layers of complexity to the libretto which the stage settings presently expose quite well but possibly subsequent re-workings of the staging may more readily observe deeper and different meaning from the same work.
Overall : go see this now - likely to become one of the standard repertoire pieces for the future.