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September 22, 2011

Passenger, ENO

By Spear's

I had prepared myself for a harrowing experience

I had prepared myself for a harrowing experience while I settled into my seat at the ENO for the first night of Mieczyslav Weinberg’s The Passenger. David Poutney’s stunning production originally staged at the Bregenz Festival tells of the relationship between an ex-SS Overseer Annaliese Franz played by Michelle Breedt and one of her prisoners Marta (Giselle Allen) in Auschwitz. Although I was transported into a bleak terrifying Hell, it wasn’t the torture I had been dreading.

The set is divided: above, the gleaming white oceanliner bound for Brazil and below, the bleak bunks of the death camp. The drama flows between the two scenes as Annaliese, on board with her diplomat husband encounters Marta, a Polish prisoner who should have gone to her death. Suddenly repressed guilt, shame and confusion between duty and morality come to light as she reckons with not only God’s judgment but (more importantly to her) that of her husband Walter played by Kim Begley.

The percussive and sometimes laborious music is lifted with innovative jazz passages, Brittenesque arpeggios, oom-paah-paah waltzes and fragmented speech but there are also moments of transcendent purity: a Bach fugue, defiantly played by a prisoner on his violin interwoven into the orchestral score was musically stunning and too shortlived. This marks the prelude to his death but he dies with integrity having refused to play a favored SS waltz.

Other stunning moments include an a capella Russian folk song sung in the dead of night, chilling coloratura from a prisoner destined for the gas chamber and the womens’ plaintive choruses reflected by a “Greek” chorus of men standing above. Victim becomes comforter as they know that “the gates of Auschwitz only open inwards.” They question God’s existence in their own way, a collection nationalities from Greece to Poland suffering together. “Are we nearer to freedom or to death?”

The production has a strong cast, particularly the women. I was so impressed by the mezzo Michelle Breedt, her acting, her use of beauty of line in a difficult score shone through but the star was undoubtedly Giselle Allen who gave all she could give to this complex and demanding role. Her voice possesses beauty, clarity and depth. She delivers the role with a deep understanding and strength, devoid of sentimentality.

She had acquainted herself with Zofia Posmysz, the writer of the novel on which her character Marta is based. This now slender elegant woman received a standing ovation with the cast taking Giselle Allen’s arm as they bowed, bound by their identical serial number on their arm. I discussed the role of Marta with Giselle a few days before her opening night…

“It has made me so grateful for life,” explains Giselle who even visited Auschwitz to get a greater understanding of what life was like there. David Pouteney’s intent was not to bring sentimentality into the production whatsoever. “He told us; absolutely no tears.” There was a deep need to keep it truthful, historical.

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“After all opera can be so full of exaggeration but in a situation such as this, the prisoners needed to be strong to stay alive. Marta is defiant and strong, keeping strength for all the prisoners. Because if you had been there, that’s how it would have been.”

This is more of a dramatic theatre piece rather than an opera so don’t be frightened by contemporary score. I felt some scenes could have been shorter as the opera is less intense than it could be. This is a criticism of the score though, not of the production as the lighting and set (by Johan Engels) is dramatically effective, down to the clever touch of a German officer on a watchtower using a search light to spotlight Marta’s final aria.

It is productions such as these where I feel the ENO has finally found its well-deserved niche in the opera world: that of innovative, groundbreaking opera with the highest calibre British singers and exceptional directors. Long live the ENO!

Melinda Hughes

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