Two worlds occupied by the same two women and presented, jarringly, as a single multi-story set. One is the pristine white deck of a 1960s ship bound for Brazil, and beneath it, where the hull might be, is the grey grim world of Auschwitz. The first is Liese and Walter’s “second honeymoon”, an idealistic and sterile scenario festooned with dinner suits and dancers, in which their attempts to flee their German guilt are thwarted by the appearance of a woman Liese recognizes from her time as an S.S. officer in Auschwitz. This second, much more realistic setting at first serves to illustrate Liese’s story. But as Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 1968 opera The Passenger wears on, the focus shifts from Liese to the women in the camps; from those trying to forget their past to the heroes who cannot be forgotten.

Melody Moore (Marta), Michelle Breedt (Lisa) and Joseph Kaiser (Walter) © Stephanie Berger
Melody Moore (Marta), Michelle Breedt (Lisa) and Joseph Kaiser (Walter)
© Stephanie Berger

Suppressed for decades, the opera didn’t receive its staged première until David Pountney’s 2010 production, 14 years after Weinberg’s death. Mr Pountney writes in the program notes of meeting the librettist, Alexander Medvedev, and being told in great detail of the envisioned “steep staircases” leading from the ocean liner to “the hell of Auschwitz”. Johan Engels’ set design perfectly conveys Medvedev’s concept: a two-story ship jutting up from the concentration camp, with movable sets such as a row of bunks that were wheeled out on creaky railway tracks. Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes are hauntingly vivid: white jackets and tea-length dresses contrasted with the brown tatters and shaved heads of the Auschwitz prisoners. Fabrice Kebour’s lighting design involved spotlights operated by helmeted men, acting as ominous sentries in a terrifying touch.

The vocals were just as stunning as the visuals. Michelle Breedt brought a broad range of sound and emotion to both of her Lieses. The older Liese, looking back, wasn’t a two-dimensional villain, but rather a conflicted woman yearning to look forward even as her own past actions seem unfathomable. She seemed repeatedly horrified at her own thoughts and words. The 22-year-old Liese was immature and unsure of herself even as she sent orders for prisoners to be taken to their deaths. In the present-day, Liese’s husband Walter, sung convincingly by Joseph Kaiser, is similarly immature. He wails about his endangered career plans should the Polish passenger reveal Liese’s identity. This passenger, whose identity never actually gets revealed, wanders silently around the deck wearing a white veil across her face.

Melody Moore (Marta) © Stephanie Berger
Melody Moore (Marta)
© Stephanie Berger

In Auschwitz, the prisoner who so impresses Liese is named Marta, and is sung hauntingly by Melody Moore. Lines such as “Every prisoner is a human being” were sung with such strength and depth that I was moved beyond belief. As Katya, another prisoner, Kelly Kaduce was heartwrenching, particularly in her recitation of the Russian folk song. Finally, Morgan Smith’s Tadeusz (the fiancé of Marta) was beautifully-sung. The music itself was brilliant; it is only a tragedy to consider how many ears this opera could have reached during the forty years it was kept silent.

Conductor Patrick Summers led the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra through Weinberg’s score with rare and fierce determination. The orchestra, facing stage right, thundered savagely through the opening scenes, then tiptoed up and down during Walter and Liese’s conversation, then drifted through searing violin tunes, our only reprieve during the brutal Auschwitz bunk scene. The live music was interspersed with grainy recordings: a waltz blasting over the loudspeakers in the camp, the same waltz echoed on the ship later on, and a fuzzy, disembodied voice calling out the prisoner numbers in German. Despite the harrowing story playing out alongside them, the soundspace proved to be surprisingly volatile. The orchestra bumbled along beneath the meeting of two Nazi guards, pelted us with notes during a Shostakovich-esque percussion interlude, and danced along much as the characters on board the ship did.

The only flaw in this otherwise extraordinarily memorable production was the occasional cliché, which could be attributed to the fact that the libretto was translated into English for these performances. Heavy-handed lines such as “Human extermination is a science” (from the Nazis), or “Our love is eternal, it burns forever” (from Tadeusz and Marta) felt a bit tedious. But the ending ultimately made up for any cheesiness along the way. Without ever finding out Marta or Liese’s fates, we were left with the dream-like image of both women returning to the destruction of Auschwitz – “all is peace and all is still” – and Marta promising her fellow prisoners never to forget them.