The glittering white of a luxury cruise liner above, the darkened hell of the concentration camp below. Johan Engels' set for Weinberg's The Passenger, first seen at the Bregenz festival in 2010 and now at the ENO in London, is one of the most striking and effective opera sets I've ever seen, both framing the action and adding colour. Many details add emotional resonance: the pervasive railway tracks, or the follow spotlights operated by camp guards on watchtowers.

© Catherine Ashmore
© Catherine Ashmore

As the opera opens, Anneliese Franz is sailing away from post-war Germany, accompanying her beloved diplomat husband Walter to a new posting. All is sweetness and light until she receives a hideous shock: one of the passengers is Marta, whom she recognises as an inmate from Auschwitz whom she believed dead. In the course of their fifteen year marriage, Anneliese has omitted to mention to Walter that she was an SS overseer in Auschwitz: he is horrified, and she is now forced to tell her story, in an extended flashback.

Alexander Medvedev's libretto is based on a radio play by Polish Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, who conceived the story when she believed she recognised her former camp overseer in the 1950s in Paris (incorrectly, as it turned out). The opera largely avoids wallowing in the ghastly details of the atrocities, focusing instead on the psychology of both the prisoners and Anneliese herself. It's also a portrait, depicted in minute detail, of how people deal with the memory of war crimes: the reality is too awful to bear on one's shoulders, and the only way out is a steady process of erasing and modifying the past. Whether it's good or evil is besides the point, the opera seems to suggest: it's the way people are.

This is a music drama in which the music is distinctly subservient to the drama, and Mieczyslaw Weinberg's score has a huge amount to recommend it. Weinberg fled Nazi Poland to the USSR and became friends with Shostakovich, who greatly admired The Passenger. His style has a great deal in common with Shostakovich: it's equally mercurial, dragging in elements from a dozen different styles. It's also strong in providing melody and harmony in ways that are interesting and engaging to the ear without explicitly following the rules either of 19th century romanticism or 20th century atonality. I enjoyed many passages, but most of all, I was impressed by the sparse orchestration and how Weinberg ensures that every phrase enhances the stage action of its particular moment. At the climax of the opera, the music takes centre stage in an effect that hits you like a thunderbolt. I won't spoil it, but suffice to say that if you know your classical music and its place in European cultural history, the moment is a devastating piece of theatre. Richard Armstrong's conducting was unimpeachable, the orchestra showing extraordinary versatility in showing how to achieve intensity in a hundred different ways.

How you react to the long central section of The Passenger will depend on your background. Being a Jewish fifty-something, I've been to Yad Vashem and done my share of reading Primo Levi and other holocaust literature, so the material didn't have much that's new to me and in spite of the great intelligence and intensity with which the dialogues between prisoners were handled, they dragged a little. If you're either young enough that the themes are less familiar or old enough to feel directly and intimately connected to the holocaust, you will probably think the pace was fine.

Director David Pountney draws acting performances of the highest quality from a large cast. The most outstanding of the singers were Kim Begley as Walter, whose voice was rich and powerful and whose characterisation totally believable, and Michelle Breedt as Anneliese, whose voice was continuously enjoyable and who gave a riveting exploration of character nuances. The role of Marta seems very challenging vocally, and although Giselle Allen dealt with it technically and gave an excellent acting performance, I was less taken by her voice, which often sounded harsh even in passages which demanded lyrical tenderness.

Overall, this is an excellent production of a superb piece of drama and a fascinating, varied piece of music, which leaves you drained and emotionally wrung out. I think it would be a great work for lovers of theatre who don't necessarily see themselves as opera fans. Sadly, the opera was banned during Weinberg's lifetime, but it's a privilege to be able to see it now.