The core of Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger takes place in Auschwitz. But in its basis – a radio play by Polish Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, later expanded to a film and novel – it is an opera about how we remember evil, or choose not to: whether to bury guilt for the perpetrators or pain for the surviving victims. Thaddeus Strassberger’s new production, for Ekaterinburg Opera and Ballet Theatre, makes us stare into the abyss from both sides: Marta (clearly a proxy for Posmysz herself), who seeks to remember, and Liese, who seeks to forget her past as an SS overseer.

Barracks scene © David Karlin
Barracks scene
© David Karlin

Weinberg’s score has more variety than any other opera I know. The SS are announced by brutal, braying brass and timpani figures. There are moments of intense string lyricism. A jazz band plays schmaltzy dance music on the liner in which, 15 years after the war, Liese is horrified to come upon Marta. The prisoner Katya sings a cappella of the “Little valley” of her Russian homeland. A xylophone figure often pre-announces a change of scene. There are many of the elements of a film score, with repeated motifs tied to different types of action, or used, in variations, to spin a common thread. At the blistering climax, Marta’s lover Tadeusz plays Bach’s D minor Chaconne, first solo on stage, then taken up by the orchestra, Bach’s sublime music then destroyed in a wash of brass just as the SS officers crush his violin underfoot.

Bach <i>D Minor Chaconne</i> scene © David Karlin
Bach D Minor Chaconne scene
© David Karlin
For all the music’s atonality and sometime harshness, it is surprisingly easy to listen to. But it is fiendishly difficult to play and sing, with many overlapping lines and themes, and singers often called upon to sing lines with no easy point of reference to the music being played beneath. Oliver von Dohnányi led an excellent orchestral performance, bringing out all the colour of Weinberg’s eclecticism and turning it into a kaleidoscope of shifting moods. The playing was crisp, precise and intense.

The Passenger has a large cast, with fifteen solo roles. You might expect this to stretch the resources of a provincial opera company, but no: the theatre has triple-cast most of the roles. The singers at the première (and, indeed, in the other cast I saw in dress rehearsal) were of uniformly high quality. Nadezhda Babintseva was as much at home in a warm mezzo for Liese’s older self on deck as she was in her more angular, fractured speech rhythms in the camp. Her complaint that Marta “did not appreciate my acts of kindness” dripped with irony, one of many instances where key phrases in the dialogue were given real impact from the coming together of text, music and singing expression. Another was Vladimir Cheberyak, as Walter, accusing her that “if a leaf is swept into the abyss, is the leaf guilty?” As Marta, Natalia Karlova produced rich timbre throughout her soprano range, with particularly effective use of vibrato to shape and colour the notes. Olga Tenyakova delivered purity and an old-fashioned feel to Katya’s a cappella aria.

Nadezhda Ryzhenkova (Liese), Dmitri Rozvizev (Walter) - cast B © David Karlin
Nadezhda Ryzhenkova (Liese), Dmitri Rozvizev (Walter) - cast B
© David Karlin
David Pountney’s production of The Passenger, first for Bregenz and later for ENO, stuck closely to the libretto’s stage directions, splitting the stage between the cruise liner’s superstructure above and the camps below. Strassberger does it differently, making the stories on the ship, in the camp and in the prisoners’ dreams blend fluidly into each other using a combination of pure stagecraft and moving sets, most notably a frame which holds the liner’s large rectangular portholes. The concept is extremely effective, particularly because of Strassberger’s attention to detail on the complex way the characters move around stage and on how they are lit. Different sets delineate the various parts of the camp, with the tall, smoking brick chimneys of the furnaces particularly hard-hitting. Vita Tzykun’s costumes accomplish the difficult task of making nine female characters in striped prison uniforms sufficiently different that you can always tell who is who.

Nadezhda Babintseva as Liese, Natalia Karlova as Marta © Sergei Gutnit
Nadezhda Babintseva as Liese, Natalia Karlova as Marta
© Sergei Gutnit
This is the first time The Passenger has been fully staged in Russia, and the first time it has been staged fully in Russian, the original language of Alexander Medvedev’s libretto. It’s a brave move, both politically and artistically. Politically, because it’s not hard to make the mental leap from concentration camp to gulag, from SS to KGB. Artistically, because audiences here are said to be conservative and accustomed to opera as escapism: the raw violence of the story will have been a challenge to many.

Strassberger keeps pressing emotional buttons right up to the end. The penultimate chorus of former prisoners is led on stage by an older woman, obviously the image of Posmysz, telling the story to two children. In the subsequent epilogue, Liese and Marta sit in their identical cabins, staring into their make-up mirrors. But the partition that divides the cabins is absent, as is the glass in the mirrors: the two women only see each other.