Public and private tragedies

Alexander Medvedev and
Mieczyslaw Weinberg
English National Opera

Giacomo Puccini
Covent Garden

Review in the Times Literary Supplement, September 30

In a review published in these pages on April 1 this year, I wrote that the disappointments of Alexander Medvedev and Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera The Portrait should not deter readers from attending the pair’s “earlier masterpiece, The Passenger, which David Pountney will bring to English National Opera in 2012”. There are two errors here, which the article’s otherwise convenient date does not excuse. The Passenger was scheduled not for 2012 but for ENO’s 2011/12 season, which opened this month with a revival of Jonathan Miller’s Elixir of Love (already branded a “classic” after a year), closely followed by its co-production of Weinberg’s opera, first seen at the Bregenz festival in 2010. The other error is that The Passenger is not, as it turns out, a “masterpiece”.

Dmitri Shostakovich, Weinberg’s friend and occasional champion, termed it thus. In the preface to the vocal score, published in 1974, Shostakovich stated that he should “never tire of the opera”, having “heard it three times already”. It is a formidable endorsement, notwithstanding that the three “performances” in question were simply occasions when Weinberg played through the score at the piano, singing the vocal parts himself for the benefit of Shostakovich and other assembled members of the Composers’ Union. The first full performance had to wait until 2006, where it was performed unstaged in Moscow. Pountney’s production is the opera’s first stage incarnation.

The story concerns a chance encounter between a former SS Aufseherin (female camp guard) Lisa (Michelle Breedt), and one of her charges at Auschwitz, Marta (Giselle Allen). The meeting takes place on a cruise ship – Lisa is sailing to Brasil as the wife of the new West German ambassador – and prompts a series of self-justificatory and ultimately self-revelatory flashbacks to her time at Auschwitz. Composed in 1968, the opera thus anticipates a recent trend in approaching the representation of the Holocaust from the perspective of the lowlier ranks among its perpetrators – uneasy but extremely important psychological ground explored elsewhere in Jonathan Littell’s novel Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) and, to a lesser extent, Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. But unlike these later narratives, Weinberg’s opera is based on a source – a radio play, later a novel – itself written by a former inmate of Auschwitz. Zofia Posmysz, a Catholic Pole arrested in 1942 for involvement with underground schools, survived largely thanks to being employed as book-keeper to SS Aufseherin Anneliese Franz. At the same time, Weinberg, a Jewish-Polish pianist, fled his native country in 1939 for the Soviet Union. His family were all murdered by the Nazis while his own fate hung in Stalin’s capricious balance on several occasions. Placed under state surveillance in 1948, he wasn’t arrested until 1953, one month before Stalin’s death. This, and his friendship with Shostakovich, saved his life.

David Pountney’s production certainly displays the work to its greatest possible advantage. The set, designed by Johan Engels, is a particular triumph. The blazing white deck of a cruise ship forms the raised centrepiece, encircled by a sea of grey dust, darkness, and grim railway lines along which travels the prison camp apparatus, pushed by the prisoners themselves. The staging thus skewers the story’s central conceit, which is that continuity penetrates the contrast between the gay 1960s pleasure-seekers and the radical inhumanity of the camps. Individual performances were also committed and authoritative, especially that of Giselle Allen and of Michelle Breedt, whose rich mezzo-sporano was impressively capable of expressing conviction and doubt in the same breath; the orchestra, under Richard Armstrong, played wonderfully.

All of which makes the shortcomings of the opera itself all the more evident. The music, after an opening flourish drawn crooked from Peter Grimes, reprised in the second act, proceeds in a dull, percussionrich and mostly tonal vernacular, punctuated every so often by an ironic burst on the saxophone and snare-drum. The vocal lines, though they might well have worked better in Russian, sap energy from the libretto with their clich├ęd and predictable contours, demanding a great deal from the singers while offering little emotional return. Medvedev’s libretto, meanwhile, turns an extraordinarily powerful story, with a large number of inbuilt psychological pressurepoints, and angles bursting for expressive outlet, into a sequence of trite, painfully unaffecting tableaux. No significant light is shed on the relationship between the guard and her favoured charge, or on the guard’s relationship with her employers, or even with herself – this, after all, is the premiss of Posmysz’s original. The concentration on female perspective does add something, but not as much as it might (and the musical implications are problematic), but everything is laid out in a fixed-focus blur whose indifference has the unfortunate effect of colouring with kitsch those moments which, by virtue of what is represented, should be witnessed with a profound sense of tragedy.

The Passenger was Weinberg’s first opera. Moreover the personal proximity of the subject matter, which drove him to such an ambitious undertaking, might have clouded his judgement. This is understandable, as is Shostakovich’s endorsement – albeit to a lesser extent – when one considers how less well understood and represented this area of history was in the 1960s, and in Russia in particular. But when one considers, for example, the earlier film (1963) adapted from the same source by the Polish director Andrzej Munk, and its extraordinary ability to capture the significant elements of the story while preserving their crucial ambiguity, one’s faith in the relevance of opera to the defining events of the previous century is shaken, to say the least. Certainly, those still hoping for an opera which brings the genre’s peculiar gifts for psychological portraiture and ambiguity to the artistic representation of the Holocaust will have to wait a while longer. Many will, of course, be moved by the spectacle of Weinberg’s and Medvedev’s opera, and by the tremendous but misguided efforts of those responsible for staging it. But in truth it does its singular subject matter a grave disservice.

Weinberg might better have learnt from Puccini than from Shostakovich how to manipulate and focus the operatic lens. The mostly new production of Puccini’s Trittico, or “triptych” of short operas – Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi – with which the Royal Opera opened its new season, showed how effective the genre’s grasp of poetic realism can be in the right hands. The three operas have not been seen together at Covent Garden since 1965. All are now directed by Richard Jones, the last of them (which first appeared in 2007) with an undertone of simmering hilarity, while the first two (both new) proceed with a simpler and profoundly affecting dramaturgical focus on the interlocking social and private tragedies they embody. Each uses a different designer, in three Fellini-esque stagings which proceed from the grimy 1940s, sharply disciplined 50s, and garish 60s. Suor Angelica, set here in a children’s hospital (North European orthodoxy evidently feels nuns come across better when given something useful to do), was extremely moving, not least for the performances of Ermonela Jaho in the title role and Anna Larsson as her aunt, brittle and nervous to breaking point, and for the thoughtful detail of the novice nuns fussing idiotically over the unsightly mess left by the heroine’s private assumption into heaven.

Antonio Pappano, a natural in this repertoire, brought out both the economy and the quickly scaled emotional heights of these scores, which, though still relatively popular, remain under-appreciated as masterpieces of operatic precision. Puccini could be a cynical artist, but his ability to dominate his libretti and captivate an audience knows few equals, and too few imitators.

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