It is difficult not to be moved by Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger. But it is possible.
The much celebrated opera, written in 1967 and exhumed in 2010, had a glitzy New York premiere on Thursday in the vast open spaces of the Park Avenue Armory, in conjunction with the Lincoln Center Festival. For at least one observer, it promised more than it could deliver.
The subject, pathos incarnate, is Nazi oppression and postwar guilt. The action fluctuates – fluidly, thanks to director David Pountney, designer Johan Engels and lighting expert Fabrice Kebour – between an elegant cruise ship (upstairs) and a dismal concentration camp (downstairs).
The sadly oppressed composer, a Polish Jew born in 1919, fled to wartime Russia only to find his seemingly progressive music rejected by the conservative Soviets. He died in 1996 without having seen his magnum opus staged.
His brashly idealistic creation, which might have benefited from the intervention of a tough editor, harbours odd ingredients: Straussian passion, Brittenesque reflection, modernist dissonance and folksy-jazzy-popsy decoration. The vocal lines soar one moment in predictable arias, sputter the next in theatrical Sprechgesang.
Alexander Medvedev’s libretto, performed in Pountney’s English adaptation, lumbers onward and sideways, flirting with sentimental cliché in the process. Man, we are reminded, can be unspeakably – also unsingably – cruel, and time does not assuage guilt.
The production, imported from Houston, was imposing on every level. Patrick Summers, the savvy conductor, reinforced expressive sympathy nonstop. The large cast was keenly dominated by Michelle Breedt as Liese, a former Auschwitz overseer desperately trying to overcome her dark past. Joseph Kaiser conveyed her husband’s blustery agitation with fervid clarity. Melody Moore made the anguish of Marta, the most magnetic inmate in the barracks, both urgent and mellifluous. The acoustic limitations of the Armory drill hall required generous amplification, which made everyone sound heroic beyond the norm.
A muted ovation at the end of three long hours of concerted misery suggested relief as much as approbation.