We all know the phrase “I was only obeying orders”, that willing accomplice in the Nazi concentration camps. But it never provides an escape from one’s conscience. Better to bury the past, forget it all, draw a line under it and never look back. Right up to the 1960s, this served as a model for our engagement with the past. Polish journalist Zofia Posmyz wrote about this behaviour with amazing accuracy as early as 1962 in her novel The Passenger, which served as the basis for Mieczysław Weinberg's opera of the same name. In the opera, SS overseer Anna Lisa Franz (a real life figure from that barbaric time) is confronted with her guilt, and Weinberg tells the story in such a way that it retains a strong grip on you throughout.

Peter Marsh (Walter), Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Lisa) and Sara Jakubiak (Marta) © Barbara Aumüller
Peter Marsh (Walter), Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Lisa) and Sara Jakubiak (Marta)
© Barbara Aumüller

In 1960, we find Lisa with her husband on a passenger vessel to South America, where he is due to take up a diplomatic post. As we hear the ship's departure signal, Walter enthuses "Farewell, Europe, to Germany Farewell". He is delighted to leave a continent traumatised by war and put those dark days behind him; only his wife remains silent: on the deck, she has recognised another passenger, who has catapulted her thoughts back into the past. Gradually her husband learns of Lisa's past, that she had been an overseer in Auschwitz, and that the ominous passenger reminds her of the Polish prisoner Marta. The dramatic and cleverly constructed libretto takes us through Lisa's process of repression in various flashbacks; slowly but surely, the reality of life in the camps becomes clear. In her dialogue with Walter, Lisa's half-hearted confessions are, one by one, exposed as self-justifications.

In this staging, the two eras are stitched together seamlessly by means of a revolving stage. We are looking at the hull of a ship:outside are the railings for the passengers, inside is the world of the concentration camps. The story is told as if gushing out of Lisa's thought world until eventually the passenger forces her to confront the horrible truth. Just as the music for the ship's party suddenly changes to a banal waltz - the same waltz that the Auschwitz commandant was continually making the prison band play for him - the mysterious person comes forward, rips the wig from her head and reveals, under her elegant coat, the striped garb of a prisoner. At the same time, the whole cast on stage turns itself into the people of the camp. Once more, the horrific scene is shown in which Marta's lover Tadeusz is commanded to play the waltz for the commandant.

Sara Jakubiak (Marta), Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Lisa) & Ensemble © Barbara Aumüller
Sara Jakubiak (Marta), Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Lisa) & Ensemble
© Barbara Aumüller

But instead, as a musical triumph over barbarity, he plays Bach's D minor chaconne. At first, Weinberg lets the solo violin be heard on its own, to be joined by violins and violas, then, at the point where the furious SS people are about to strike the violinist, the music explodes into chaotic cacophony. Tadeusz is duly shot against the notorious SS “Black Wall”.

The composer puts across his message in highly varied music, every part of which demands the utmost intensity, music which is suited to the stage in a totally individual way, accessible, immediate music which intensifies the emotional impact of events on stage. The very first scene on the ship’s deck between Walter and Lisa depicts their different states of mind with different musical techniques – he expansive and enthusiastic, she laconic and cool in short vocal phrases. Peter Marsh and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner were totally convincing in their singing, with Baumgartner also achieving intense expression in her chasms of despair and in the the sadistic cynicism of her role as SS henchwoman.

Brian Mulligan (Tadeusz) und Michael McCown (Commandant) © Barbara Aumüller
Brian Mulligan (Tadeusz) und Michael McCown (Commandant)
© Barbara Aumüller
Weinberg has each role sung in its mother tongue, which brings a further touch of authenticity to the work. So Marta sings her role in Polish (as Passenger, she is silent, thus maintaining the secrecy of her identity). She sings at length about her expectation of death, and Sara Jakubiak’s voice contained a deeply touching mixture of grief and hope. As Katja, Anna Ryberg sings a song of longing for her native Russia unaccompanied, with heartfelt depth. The powerful performance of the chorus also has to be mentioned, who accompany and comment on the action throughout. Last but not least: conductor Christoph Gedschold’s touching treatment of the music enhanced its emotional realism. Under his leadership, the orchestra performed the stylistic nuances of this rich score with great security and precision.

One might have thought it close to impossible that such a theme could be treated effectively through the medium of opera. But what makes this production exceptional is the realism of the work, as much in its libretto as in the effect of its music.

The author Zofia Posmysz is herself a survivor of Auschwitz and thus witness to those times. Mieczysław Weinberg became a victim of Nazi barbarity more than once: his parents and relations were exterminated in the camps while he himself escaped to the Soviet Union, where he was tormented by Stalinism and became known only very late in life. In the West, his works were unknown until very recently. Gradually, however, carefully worked productions of his operas have begun to highlight the importance of this brilliant composer. In particular, as this Frankfurt production has powerfully shown us, The Passenger deserves to be numbered amongst the most important works of the 20th century.

 

Translated from German by David Karlin