Provocative but profound

By Norman Lebrecht, October 7, 2011

It is always a good sign when a new opera divides opinion straight down the middle. Opera is an inflammatory art, an assault on all the senses. If some critics emerge from it crying "masterpiece" and others are sulphurous with outrage, you can be pretty sure that the staging is brilliant and the work is here to stay.

Few operas in recent years have proved so divisive as Myczieslaw Weinberg's The
Passenger, written in 1968 from a book by an Auschwitz survivor, suppressed by the Soviets and premiered only last year at the Bregenz Festival by the British director, David Pountney, before transferring this month to the English National Opera.

It is, strikingly, the first opera to be set in the Auschwitz death camp. That, for many people, is reason enough to reject it unseen – the more so when the Holocaust is so reduced to cliché that one Guardian columnistm at the premiere, Deborah Orr, brazenly asked why The Passenger was not staged through a prism of Israel-Palestine.

Others, like the editors of this paper and Gramophone magazine were deterred by music that they found either abrasive or unfit for purpose, too trivial for its terrible subject. Analogies were drawn with other Holocaust exploitations – with Sophie's Choice and with Bernhard Schlink's deeply ambivalent fiction of a camp guard's guilt, The Reader, in the film of which Kate Winslet was too lovely to dislike. All are valid criticisms, every one. Yet what I saw at ENO was a near-masterpiece and I'll try to explain why.

I came across Weinberg's music 25 years ago when his name was written Moisei Vainberg and he was known, if at all, as an associate of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The two were neighbours and best friends – so much so that Shostakovich offered to adopt Weinberg's children when, as expected, the KGB came to drag him away. No two composers were ever closer. What I tried to work out was whether Weinberg shared his friend's coded dissidence to the Soviet system.

Shostakovich applied Mahlerian irony – saying one thing, meaning another – to write music that pleased the commissars while conveying grim truths to Russian audiences. In Weinberg, I found no irony. Rather, when he wanted to make a telling point in any of his 27 symphonies, he tended to use the
Jewish language he had left behind.

He persisted, knowing that it might never see the light of day

Born in Warsaw in 1919, Weinberg fled East when the Nazis arrived, losing family in the Holocaust. He remained forever grateful for Soviet refuge, even when Stalin in 1948 murdered his father-in-law, the actor Solomon Mikhoels, in an antisemitic purge.

Two decades on, writing his first opera, Weinberg knew that works dealing with the genocide of Jews – such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poem Babi Yar, later set to music by Shostakovich – were banned after a single hearing. Yet he persisted with The Passenger, knowing that it might never see light of day. In trying both to tell the truth and to get it past the censors he created a work of extraordinary, almost irreconcilable tensions.

The opera flips between the first-class deck of an ocean liner, where a German ambassador and his wife are sailing to Brazil, and the lower reaches of hell in an Auschwitz bunkhouse. At the heart of the story is the obsession, perhaps homoerotic, of a woman guard for one of her prisoners.

The scene changes are managed in music of profoundly unsettling originality. Weinberg occasionally strayed off-message as he tried to deceive the censors with social-realist distractions. But the second act is emotionally overwhelming, resisting the obvious temptation of simplistic catharsis. There is no moral
resolution and in the lower lines of score you will hear Jewish themes struggling for redemption.

Pountney regards Weinberg as a displaced person in a lifelong search for identity. He considers The Passenger "without doubt the most significant opera composed in the
Russian language since War and Peace." I'm inclined to share Fiona Maddocks' spohisticated distinction (in the Observer) that The Passenger is a masterwork, rather than a masterpiece, a triumph of musical ambition over political suppression, a leap of creative ingenuity over high walls of state prejudice.

I shall go and see The Passenger again. And again. The struggle that pervades every line of score offers hope and encouragement to oppressed minorities and the buried Jewish micro-melodies will reward many hours of analysis. Above all, I shall treasure its stubborn historic truths. This is the real Auschwitz, not a heritage trip.

Norman Lebrecht is a music writer, author and cultural commentator

Last updated: 10:22am, October 7 2011