The Passenger
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In Review > North America

The Passenger

Michigan Opera Theater

MIECZYSŁAW WEINBERG'S 1968 OPERA, The Passenger, did not receive its stage premiere until 2010, when director David Pountney’s production was first seen in Bregenz. (The opera was presented in concert in Moscow in 2006.) Poutney’s well-traveled staging—previously seen in Warsaw, London, New York, Karlsruhe, Houston, Chicago and Karlsruhe—arrived in Detroit on November 14. The opera is an unflinching account of memory and resistance during and after the Holocaust. With a scope both intimate and sweeping, characters at once unique and archetypal, and a sophisticated, profoundly touching score, The Passenger is gaining recognition as among the greatest operas of the twentieth century.

The action begins on the deck of an ocean liner, fifteen years after the Second World War. Liese Franz (Daveda Karanas), accompanying her husband Walter (David Danholt) to a diplomatic post in Brazil, sees a woman she fears is Marta (Adrienn Miksch), previously Liese’s prisoner at Auschwitz, whom Liese believed dead. Liese slowly confesses her attempted manipulation of Marta and her fiancé Tadeusz (Marian Pop) while an SS guard. Liese, a challenging if thankless role, is a difficult character to like. Karanas delivered a nuanced, accomplished performance of fear and unresolved guilt accompanied by an infuriating naivete: “they hated us,” she marvels, “we couldn’t get used to it.” Danholt’s Walter brimmed with compact, fiery strength as he plays the absolving role of a forward-looking West Germany to Liese’s implicated generation, assuring her that they “have the right to forget the past.” His absolution highlights the opera’s overarching theme, as in prisoner Katja’s haunting rendering of a half-remembered Russian folk song, given luminous voice in an astonishing performance by Anna Gorbachyova. 

Every grab at humanity constitutes resistance and memory here, peaking when violinist Tadeusz chooses, rather than play the cheap waltz ordered by the Commandant, to transcend the terror with a Bach chaconne (played with stunning heart by Tadeusz double Henrik Karapetyan). The consistent weaving of this theme invites the realization that, like all such endeavors, the opera is itself a performance of memory as resistance.

As Marta, Adrienn Miksch was a revelation, underlining her character’s will with heartbreaking vocal control. Her voice, even when paper-thin, was unerringly warm; Miksch erupted into striking power just as readily. Miksch was ideally matched with the gorgeous baritone of Pop’s Tadeusz; their tender, all-too-short connection was vulnerable and authentic. Pop managed with equal assurance a measured growl with Liese and a sumptuous lyricism in his love duet with Marta. The desperate, humanizing relationships of the other women in the barracks ground the opera’s realistic horror. Gorbachyova’s Katja, youthful French Yvette (Angela Theis), doomed Hannah (Courtney Miller), forthright Vlasta (Kristin Eder), maternal Bronka (Liubov Sokolova), and kind, shaken Krystyna (Ashley Maria Bahri Kashat) were each devastating and sharply drawn, with total commitment and glorious voices worthy of top billing. 

The Poutney production was mounted here by revival director Rob Kearley. The staging’s design, by Johan Engels, Marie-Jeanne Lecca and Fabrice Kebour, leaves nothing untouched: the scenes on the ship unfold in clean, luxurious white above while Auschwitz’s grimy barracks, striped prisoner uniforms, and shaved heads fill the stage level and large elements of the immense set move on historically resonant train tracks. Weinberg’s score, negotiated with sensitivity by conductor Steven Mercurio, swings masterfully between thick expressionism and a sickly, jazz-inflected breeziness. 


Michigan Opera Theater chose to present the version of the score sung in the various languages of the story’s characters—Polish, Russian, English, French, Yiddish and Czech. (Other theaters in the U.S. have used an English-language translation.) ThePassenger is affecting in ways the very best art should be. The care with which MOT took up this late-discovered gem makes it by far their best production in recent memory. —Jennifer Goltz-Taylor 

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