By David Kiley
"The Passenger" runs through Nov. 22. Ticket prices range from $29-149. The Michigan Opera Theatre/Detroit Opera House is located at 1526 Broadway, Detroit.
Following Michigan Opera Theatre's successful staging last month of fan-favorite "La Boheme," the prospect of a multi-lingual opera about the Holocaust might seem daunting – except to those who know the back-story and brief performance story of "The Passenger," which shall go down in MOT history as perhaps the best production they have ever mounted.
The story begins with Liese, a middle-aged German woman, aboard an ocean liner with her husband Walter, a diplomat with a new high-profile posting. Liese is suddenly struck and beset over the sight of a woman who looks familiar. The woman's face, though, is covered in a white scarf. Liese is so beside herself that she is forced to confide to her husband of many years that she was an SS guard at Auschwitz. The mysterious woman, she thinks, was a prisoner, named Marta, who Liese thought sure was dead – along with anyone else at the concentration camp who could out her as a death-camp guard.
The story then plays out on a brilliant two level, multi-dimensional set. At the top level, we have the ship, where Liese and Walter's journey and conversations are taking place, such as the worry over whether it could be Marta, and whether her disclosure about Liese would ruin Walter's career. Below, at stage level, is Auschwitz, with a series of set changes where flashback action takes place and we see a younger Liese, Marta and all the other inmates enduring the impossible – yet all too true – treatment at the hands of the Nazis.
The opera was written by Soviet composer Mieczylsaw, himself of Polish-Jewish heritage, in 1968. The libretto is by Alexander Medvedev, based on a novel of the same name by Zofia Posmysz. The work was not allowed to be performed by Soviet authorities, and Weinberg never saw it performed during his lifetime – all the more a tragedy, beyond the subject material itself. It's first performance was in 2010 in Bregenz, Austria, and the stupendous production mounted by the Michigan Opera Theatre is the eighth company to put it on.
Weinberg reportedly was inspired to write the "The Passenger" by fellow composer, Dimitri Shostakovich, who told him of a radio play that was so well received it was turned into the novel "Passenger from Cabin Number 45," by Zofia Posmysz, a Polish-Catholic woman who had been imprisoned at Auschwitz.
The unfortunate short-hand description of "The Passenger" can sometimes be "a multi-lingual opera about the Holocaust." And if one hears that, it can be difficult to mount enthusiasm. But "The Passenger" is an experience in opera and theater not to be missed. Indeed, part of the brilliance and beauty of the music and story is hearing parts sung in the different languages of the characters – Polish, German, Russian and English.
Weinberg's music is ethereal. The feat of writing music for women inmates of Auschwitz that captures both their misery and defeat, yet their passion for their loved ones, and for each other, without it ever slipping into dirge is nothing short of brilliant. It helps that in the hands of director Rob Kearley and conductor Steven Mercurio, based on the original direction of David Pountney, the cast and ensemble are operating on the highest level this critic has ever seen at MOT.
MOT founder and artistic director David DiChiera set out to produce the play and raise extra money to do so based on seeing a video of the Austrian production. It is a testament to DiChiera's leadership and long-held passion for bringing modern, seldom-staged operas to Detroit in addition to the crowd pleasers.
Mezzo-Soprano Daveda Karanas plays the co-lead Liese. It is a role she will be known for after completing a production at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. From Detroit, she goes to the Florida Grand Opera to perform it. Karanas manages the transformation from middle-aged wife to a girl of about 20 as an SS guard. Her acting as the panicked diplomat's wife and the manipulative young guard combines with her sublime vocals for a special experience at the opera.
Adrienn Miksch embodies the character of Marta, so much so that she becomes the focus of Liese. The actress radiates on stage, and communicates to the audience during her performance and curtain call how special she realizes this part is, and how lucky she is to play it without ever over-playing it by an ounce. Her straight-tone singing, and her ability to float her notes is the stuff that stays with those who see it long after the curtain closes.
Lauren Skuce Gross, billed only as "Old Woman," is also a stand-out. The soprano plays a Christian woman inmate, and her devotion to her faith as she sings flawlessly comes through in every scene. Siberian-born soprano Anna Gorbachyova as Katja and Michigan's own Kristin Eder as Vlasta also perform exquisitely.
There were several wonderful decisions made by the director and conductor. One was to have musicians on the ship actually playing, rather than pretending and having the music coming from the pit. Another was to have a musician double for Tadeusz, a violinist and Marta's fiancee also in the camp, when he is forced to play a concert for the SS officers. Nothing faked. The whole production is tight as a drum with no loose ends.
The set works brilliantly. The use of rails on the stage to move different pieces around reminds us all too perfectly how train cars were used for such ugly, evil purposes during the Holocaust.
Bottom Line: This is an opera experience not to be missed. And in an age when terrorism over religion and race is in the headlines weekly, there is nothing dated about this story.
Running time for "The Passenger" is about 3 hours with a 20-minute intermission.