This unforgettable story is based on the Polish radio play by concentration camp survivor Zofia Posmysz. On a luxury ocean liner, a woman is haunted by her past. It’s the 1960s. Liese (performed by Daveda Karanas) and her German diplomat husband (performed by Brandon Jovanovich) are enjoying a second honeymoon. A mysterious stranger strolling the deck unnerves her. The encounter forces an emotional Karanas into a confession to Jovanovich. She admits she was an SS officer, an overseer at the concentration camp Auschwitz. Karanas begs a repelled Jovanovich to believe she was an innocent herself to the atrocities. Karanas convinces him and the audience she helped the prisoners. And then, we see the gripping flashback scenes.
Under the direction of David Pountney and the vision of librettist Alexander Medvedev, Designer Johan Engels creates a stunning, multi-level revolving set. On the top, a sleek, sparkling white cruise ship is filled with sophisticated passengers also clad in white (Costume Designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca). When the bow of the boat rotates, it reveals the women barracks at Auschwitz. The clean, crisp aesthetic contrasts with the dingy, dank, overcrowded hovel. And to add to the heart-wrenching reality of despair, Lecca dresses the inmates in eclectic combinations of stripes and filth. Yet, that’s not even the most disconcerting element of Poutney’s staging.
In between the 1960s ship and the 1940s camp is a chorus of men holding books and dressed in contemporary suits. They sit on a revolving perch literally in-between these two moments in time. They represent current society. They exhibit varying degrees of interest in the events with little to no emotional response. This visual is perhaps the most disturbing in this operatic nightmare.
When Karanas reluctantly returns to her past by descending the figurative stairwell into hell, she leaves her vulnerability on the ship. Once in her Nazi uniform, Karanas takes on a steely façade. She is intent on coercing loyalty from the commanding Amanda Majeski (Marta). Despite her dire situation, Majeski exudes a majesty in her presence and her singing. In the women’s barracks, she rallies the ladies with motivational resilience. And then she sings an almost effervescent love duet with Joshua Hopkins (Tadeusz) after she discovers her fiancé is still alive. Even though Majeski radiates happiness in the reunion, Medvedev’s words sting the audience. Her how-could-I-not-be-happy lyrics gnaw at me as I fully comprehend the danger and the hopelessness. As Hopkins is tenderly caressing Majeski’s shaven head, Designer Fabrice Kebour flips the switch on the Gestapo lighting and in marches Karanas. Throughout the show, Kebour effectively illuminates the entrance of abusive power with abrupt and stark lighting.
Miecyzslaw Weinberg composed a searing score. Under the always spirited baton of Sir Andrew Davis, the melodies mirror the action as Weinberg’s music showcases the sharp edges of the drama. The score is less sentimental and more chaotic as one instrument breaks free of the harmony and struggles to be heard over the rest. The audio combined with the visual make this historic tragedy personal. The men’s chorus may not be affected by the reenactment but the rest of us are or should be. In an evocative epilogue, Majeski sings about her losses and her promise not to forgive. A remorseful and silent Karanas is behind her. The burden of surviving becomes its own death sentence. THE PASSENGER is unforgiving and poignantly memorable.
Running Time: Three hours includes an intermission
At Civic Opera House, 10 N. Wacker
Based on the radio play “The Passenger” by Zofia Posmysz
Opera in two acts in Russian, German, Polish, French, Yiddish, Czech and English with projected English titles
Composed by Miecyzslaw Weinberg
Libretto by Alexander Medvedev
Conducted by Sir Andrew Davis
Directed by David Pountney
At 7:30pm on March 9th
At 2pm on March 12th and 15th
Buy Tickets at www.lyricopera.org
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