Auschwitz Opera Misses; Playboy Hits Irish Pub: London Stage

Michelle Breedt and Giselle Allen in "The Passenger" at English National Opera in London. The 1968 opera, by Mieczsyslaw Weinberg, is about a guard and an inmate in Auschwitz. Photographer: Catherine Ashmore/ENO via Bloomberg

“The Passenger” is the opera the Soviets didn’t want you to see. Maybe they were right.

Set on an ocean liner in the early 1960s, Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 1968 work (at the English National Opera in London) tells the story of Liese, a former Auschwitz guard. She believes that a mysterious silent passenger on the ship is a former camp inmate called Marta.

When Liese begins to confess her dark past to her husband, the opera goes into flashback mode and the scene changes to the concentration camp.

A note in the program says that the work was never staged in Weinberg’s lifetime and was “effectively banned.” The reasons may well have been as aesthetic as political.

The dramaturgy is confused, like a dithery navigator with an antiquated map. The long rambling Auschwitz scenes show Marta and other female prisoners singing sad folk songs, relating scraps of personal history, and praying. Although they’re not witnessed by Liese, they’re presented as dramatic truth.

Hey, what happened to the flashback framing device?

The longed-for dramatic confrontation between Liese and Marta on board ship never takes place. The opera begins by building up Liese’s fear of the past, her terror of old secrets, her guilt.

Not to have the two women face each other is like having a hotdog without the sausage.

On the plus side, the work is not tasteless or exploitative. It tries to present an impossibly difficult subject earnestly. Weinberg (1919-1996), a Polish Jew whose family was slaughtered in the Holocaust, had more moral right than most to tackle it.

Spiky Waltzes

That said, things are mostly as lukewarm musically as they are dramatically, and the earnestness is both predictable and unvarying. The score sounds as if Weinberg had raided Shostakovich’s waste-paper basket for scrunched up castoffs. There are lots of dissonant chords, which occasionally resolve into major triads. There are ironic spiky waltzes with “wrong” notes. Vocal lines meander.

Nazi officers appear with blaring low brass and threatening chords, as you’d expect. A male chorus, dressed in modern suits, comments on the action. When they bellow “Confess it all!” to guilty Liese, like a gaggle of wronged heroines in a melodrama, things topple close to parody.

Like his younger Soviet contemporary Alfred Schnittke, Weinberg uses direct quotes too, in this case of Schubert and Bach. It’s a bit unconvincing.

Hushed Rapture

It’s not all gloom. There’s a simple unaccompanied folk song for Katya, one of the inmates, in Act 2. Julia Sporsen sings it with hushed rapture, and the effect is haunting.

All the singing is good. Mezzo Michelle Breedt (Liese) and soprano Giselle Allen (shaven-headed as Marta) both have rich, flexible voices and give committed performances.

David Pountney’s production is a model of clarity. Crowd scenes are handled well, and Johan Engels’s set cleverly floats the white decks and funnels of a liner above the dank grays and browns of Auschwitz cells.

For an unforgettably complex account of an inmate-guard relationship after Auschwitz, read the penultimate chapter in Primo Levi’s book “The Periodic Table.” To watch a missed opportunity, go see “The Passenger.” Rating: *1/2.

Stylish Playboy

At the Old Vic, J.M. Synge’s 1907 classic tragicomedy “The Playboy of the Western World” gets a new outing, in a stylish period-costume production by John Crowley.

Robert Sheehan plays Christy Mahon, a young silver-tongued drifter who turns up in a remote Irish pub claiming to have killed his father. At first, the locals applaud his deed and praise his courage. When the father turns up with a bandage on his head, the villagers feel cheated and turn on Mahon with a vengeance.

Ruth Negga brings gusto and authority to Pegeen Mike, the tough barmaid with whom Christy falls in love, and Niamh Cusack swaggers delightfully as the jealous Widow Quin who tries to come between them. The staging looks great, and there are toe-tapping folk songs sung by members of the company.

The weak link is Sheehan, who doesn’t quite convince as the Playboy. He flaps his arms, contorts his face, and turns in an exaggerated telegraphic performance which fails to match the focused energy of the two female leads.

The exuberance of the language is more than enough compensation. “I’m thinking this night wasn’t I a foolish fellow not to kill my father in the years gone by,” says Christy, lapping up the adulation of the villagers. Who could resist such intoxicating use of Irish demotic? Rating: ***.

Trittico Revival

The Royal Opera House’s production of “Il trittico” by Puccini has finished. (I caught the final performance of Richard Jones’s staging after my holiday.) The verdict? Snap up tickets as soon as a revival is announced.

Jones sets “Suor Angelica,” a tale of a nun forced to give up her illegitimate child, in a religious hospital for children. Sometimes the opera has been dismissed as Catholic kitsch. In Jones’s simple production with a blazing Ermonela Jaho in the title role and Antonio Pappano conducting, it’s revealed as a harrowing and uplifting meditation on the mysteries of life and death. Rating: ****.

“The Passenger” is in repertoire at ENO through Oct. 25. Information: or +44-871-911-0200; “The Playboy of the Western World” is at the Old Vic until Nov. 26, or +44-844-871-7628; “Il trittico” has finished at the Royal Opera. For information about current productions,

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless
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