An opera as suspenseful as a Hitchcock film, a soul-searing score, and a marvel of a two-tiered set. And that’s before we even mention the voices on stage at the Lyric Opera of Chicago‘s premiere of “The Passenger” the evening of Feb. 24.
The score by Mieczysław Weinberg begins with menacing drums, painting a musical portrait of power and fear. From a shattering sendup of Schubert’s “March Militarie,” to a brief sweep like Benjamin Britten’s “Sea Interludes,” and slender, hopeful notes from the flute, the music tells us everything. Under the baton of Lyric’s music director Sir Andrew Davis, the orchestra presents a muscular performance of this complex and often overwhelming score.
A German couple, Walter and Liese, sung by American tenor Brandon Jovanovich and Greek-American mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas, are leaving Germany. It is the 1960s and after 15 years of marriage, they are sailing for Brazil where Walter has been appointed to a diplomatic post.
The decks and railings of the ocean liner gleam and the characters are clad in white. Liese sees a veiled woman, who reminds her of a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz, the death camp where Liese had been an SS overseer during World War II. She is terrified and reveals her past to Walter for the first time. Angered by her confession, he fears his career in government will be ruined if that information gets out.
The second scene is the women’s barracks at Auschwitz, a dark brown and gray hell beneath the deck of the shining ship. The mysterious woman is Marta, sung by the incandescent Amanda Majeski, an Illinois-born soprano and alumna of Lyric’s Opera Center. She indeed is the prisoner that Liese thought had been killed along with the 1.6 million at that camp during the Nazi regime. But Marta has survived and is determined that the women in her barracks not be forgotten.
From a dark hallway alongside the barracks, members of the Lyric Opera Chorus comment on the action.
That’s all we need to know. This compelling drama, directed by David Pountney, is presented with such passion that we become both passenger and prisoner. Based on the novel “The Passenger” by Zofia Posmysz, it is actually the Polish author’s story of her three years in Auschwitz. She is now 91 and the audience cheered wildly when she stepped onto the Lyric stage after the opening night performance.
The splendidly conceived set was the brainchild of the librettist Alexander Medvedev, who died before the opera’s premiere, The design was executed by Johan Engels, who died last year. Lyric’s performances of “The Passenger” are dedicated to designer’s memory, and his work will be on stage again as Lyric presents Wagner’s “Ring” cycle from 2016 to 2020.
“The Passenger” has everything an opera needs—a story that fearlessly faces history, a dynamic score, solid voices and a memorable production. It premiered in Austria in 2010. See it. You won’t forget it.
Performance dates for “The Passenger” at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, are 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28, March 4, and 9 and 2 p.m. March 12 and 15. It is sung in Russian, German, Polish, French, Yiddish, Greek, Czech and English with English supertitles. The opera runs about three hours with one intermission. For tickets and information, call 312-827-5600 or visit Lyric’s website.