Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Passenger, English National Opera, 24 September 2011


Annaliese Franz – Michelle Breedt
Marta – Giselle Allen
Walter – Kim Begley
Tadeusz – Leigh Melrose
Katya – Julia Sporsén
Krystina – Pamela Helen Stephen
Vlasta – Wendy Dawn Thompson
Hannah – Carolyn Dobbin
Yvette – Rhian Lois
Old Woman – Helen Field
Bronka – Rebecca de Pont Davies
SS Officers – Adrian Dwyer, Charles Johnston, Gerard O’Connor
Steward/Elderly Passenger/Kommandant – Graeme Dandy
SS Officer/Kapo – Vanessa Leagh-Hicks

David Pountney (director)
Rob Kearley (associate director)
Johan Engels (set designs)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Fabrice Kebour (lighting)
Ran Arthur Braun (director)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Sir Richard Armstrong (conductor)

This is not to be taken in any real sense as a review but rather just as a few observations. ENO’s season, as so often, is a far more interesting prospect than that of its big brother across Covent Garden (three – or four, depending on how one counts – runs for La traviata!) Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger, based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, receives its British premiere, in a staging by David Pountney first seen at Bregenz. It is in excellent company, alongside works by Wolfgang Rihm, Detlev Glanert, and ENO’s first ever staging of a Rameau opera, Castor et Pollux (to be reviewed next month).

The problem, I am afraid, is that, on the basis of what I heard, Weinberg’s music is catastrophically inept. It is not merely that it adds nothing to the story; its aimlessness and weirdly arbitrary inappropriateness detract from what ought to be a harrowing tale of Holocaust remembrance. The Passenger is not offensive in the way that Terry Gilliam’s narcissistic Damnation of Faust was – an ignorant anti-German rant that also managed to posit genocide as entertainment – for it is clearly meant well, but the best, or at least most arresting, of Weinberg’s music seems to be heard in the couple of minutes or so before the voices enter, and it is still not very good. Some loud kettledrums at least have an effect. Whatever is one to make of the xylophone runs interpolated later on, though? It is difficult to imagine either musical or dramatic motivation for them: they just come and go. Influences or at least strong likenesses come thick and thin: perhaps most oddly, Shostakovich in jazz mode whilst Annaliese informs her diplomat husband of her wartime activities in the SS. Weill this is not, though it seems pretty clear that there is influence there. Most glaring is a passage – we are on a ship, so I suppose it is deliberate – that sounds lifted straight from Peter Grimes. Hindemith and Busoni might also be present, though the likeness may be coincidental rather than anything else. Otherwise, voices declaim, sometimes break into aria-like writing, whilst thin, irrelevant instrumental lines fill in the space below. Male SS officers veer dangerously close to the unintentionally comic: this does not appear to be an ironic commentary upon their repellent desire to burn human bodies more quickly, merely a product of the composer’s inability to compose appropriate music. A female officer unfortunately reminds one, both in appearance and delivery, of Helga from ‘Allo ‘Allo! What might work in depiction of Occupied France is not, to put it mildly, necessarily the best thing for an extermination camp.

Pountney’s production seems as good as the work is likely to get – and better than it deserves. There would have been a far greater sense of claustrophobia and naked terror, had they not been undermined by the music. Designs (Johan Engels’s sets and Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes) and lighting (Fabrice Kebour) do everything one might have asked of them. Sir Richard Armstrong’s conducting is incisive, the ENO orchestra on excellent, truly responsive form, generating a volume that surprises in the vast expanses of the Coliseum. The singers again make the strongest possible case, Michelle Breedt’s Annaliese properly conflicted and vibrant, insofar as the music will permit that, Kim Begley’s delivery as heedful of text as one would expect, and so on. However, as I said, this is not really a review. For one thing, I left at the interval, unable to drag myself back into the theatre. Perhaps the second act would have proved a revelation. Perhaps not.