The Passenger opens on a ship on the Atlantic Ocean, some years after the second World War. A German diplomat sings to his wife about the honor of work well done, but she reveals her secret: work that she performed dutifully, and with pride, at Auschwitz under Hitler’s orders. And so Mieczysław Weinberg’s opera, based on the novel of the same name by Zofia Posmysz, focuses on the cruelty of camps through the honor its custodians felt in doing a job well. It is an inflection that sidesteps the anesthesizing effects of representing horror directly, one of the stylistic pitfalls of works about lives past.

Amanda Majeski (Marta) and Daveda Karanas (Liese) © Michael Brosilow | Lyric Opera
Amanda Majeski (Marta) and Daveda Karanas (Liese)
© Michael Brosilow | Lyric Opera

Director David Pountney and set designer Johan Engels juxtapose past and present by placing the ship’s set above a dark space that becomes the camp when Liese, the diplomat’s wife (sung by Daveda Karanas), begins to remember her role in the war. The verticality of the movement of memory nicely emphasizes the subterranean source of her memories, as if she is always in danger of being sucked back down. The darkness of the barracks below is further emphasized by the hateful polish and whiteness of the set and costumes above, which are pitched at a realism that ever so slightly touches on the surreal. This is a history with ghosts.

Weinberg’s score opens martially. Like his contemporary Shostakovich, Weinberg's music is often in comic mode without being at all funny. Yet The Passenger, which Shostakovich admired intensely, is less guttural and alarming than, say, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It evinces, rather, the effortless technique of a player piano; the Lyric’s orchestra, led by Sir Andrew Davis, comfortably navigated the score’s bouquet of dance tunes and marches, some riotously colorful, others restrained and with an edge.

The score’s linearity and tight pulse made less for opera than something akin to sung theater, especially in the Act I. Brandon Jovanovich brought force and coldness to the German diplomat Walter, while Daveda Karanas’ sober and humane Liese kept the SS wife from becoming a caricature. Kelly Kaduce, as the prisoner Katya, sung with fragility and focus. But the standout by a mile this evening was Amanda Majeski, who sang the survivor’s role with silky depth and an extraordinary control of dynamic range. She really knows how to scale her power; especially when the role opens up in Act II, Majeski’s style, with its tapered onsets and ringing vibrato, seemed an extension of Marta’s increasing resolve and emotional directness.

Amanda Majeski (Marta), Daveda Karanas (Liese) and Brandon Jovanovich (Walter) © Michael Brosilow | Lyric Opera
Amanda Majeski (Marta), Daveda Karanas (Liese) and Brandon Jovanovich (Walter)
© Michael Brosilow | Lyric Opera

It is in the scenes among the prisoners of the camp and their overseers that this opera is most effective, managing to craft a realism of suffering that is all the worse for being banal and everyday. Less effective, and indeed damaging, are the direct elicitations of audience sentiment (Pountney often has characters turn to the hall and reach out to the audience, in an appeal for sympathy). The danger for any historical work that seeks to represent a world whose horror is, needless to say, nearly unrepresentable is the temptation to draw on the audience’s existing storehouse of feeling; yet the contemporary middle-class has no referent for Auschwitz. This is where the difficult modernist project of expanding what is sensible can gesture toward forms of historical feeling that are absent from our everyday. But The Passenger, in its weakest moments, simply asks the audience to sympathize without giving them music challenging enough to unsettle what they already know how to feel. In the claim that sympathy with the camps is possible (and, indeed, cathartic for the opera-going audience), their cruelty is reduced and their real suffering misremembered.