Mieczyslaw Weinberg's 1968 opera The Passenger is not the great, cathartic Holocaust opera that we've been waiting for, though the package that arrived Thursday at Lincoln Center Festival – with an excellent Houston Grand Opera cast and massive, two-tier set encompassing white ship decks and dingy concentration camp dormitories – could almost convince you that this earnest piece might have a lasting place in the international repertory.
Based on a story by Zofia Posmysz, The Passenger takes place in the early 1960s as a former Auschwitz overseer and her diplomat husband, en route to an appointment in Brazil by ship, encounter a passenger whom the wife thinks she knew as a presumed-dead concentration camp prisoner. Roughly speaking, Banquo's ghost meets Pontius Pilate: The overseer let the sadism around her take its course while absolving herself of responsibility. Even after extensive flashbacks to Auschwitz, we're never sure who the passenger really is, or if she's an apparition.
The authors came by their subject matter honestly: Posmysz is an Auschwitz survivor (and now, in her 90s, was brought in by Lincoln Center to speak at ancillary events) and the Polish-born Weinberg (1919-1996) fled Germany for the Soviet Union in 1939. He was championed by Dmitri Shostakovich, who heard The Passenger repeatedly and called it "a perfect masterpiece." Despite that, the opera went unstaged until recent years.
The well-traveled David Pountney production (already recorded on a DVD from Bregenz) arrived here at the Park Avenue Armory, where the Johan Engels set design had plenty of room to sprawl and breath with atmospheric, mobile lighting effects afforded by the train tracks in the concentration camp work areas. Singers were tastefully amplified and coordinated via video monitors with the rock-solid Houston Grand Opera Orchestra under Patrick Summers, positioned off to the side.
The cast was uniformly superior to the Bregenz DVD, though if one didn't immediately think to cheer the singers in the manner they deserve, it's because they had to work so hard to cover the composer's blind spots. One beautiful voice after another – including Joseph Kaiser as the Diplomat, Kelly Kaduce as the prisoner Katya and especially Melody Moore as the resurrected Marta – emerged only periodically amid Weinberg's unmelodic vocal lines.
More curious, the less-than-singable lines often lack dramatic eloquence, despite the savvy efforts of Michelle Breedt as the Auschwitz overseer Liese and James Maddalena as the ship's spectral steward. So instrumentally oriented is the score that its best scene isn't vocal at all: Defying orders to play a Nazi-favored waltz, a Jewish violinist force feeds the authorities Bach's famous unaccompanied Chaconne.
Though Weinberg's vocabulary tells you he was breathing the same air as Shostakovich, more direct influences from Peter Grimes (brass writing that sounds like fanfares in reverse and wind solos that effectively shriek) are more harmonic than dramatic. Weinberg wrote other operas and many film scores, but one wishes he'd taken lessons from Janacek's compact From the House of the Dead or Andrzej Munk's unfinished but taut film version of The Passenger, screened at Lincoln Center on Tuesday. One wonders how different the opera might be had the composer a chance to work more on it in the context of a theatrical production.
The two acts feel like different pieces. In Act I, the spare music is only tangentially relevant to the world of the diplomat and his wife (their Act I scenes are quite inert) with vaguely sinister commentary from bass clarinet and a sense of disembodied realty from the celesta. Musically, the opera doesn't get going until 45 minutes in, with the prisoners' chorus. In the much-more-powerful Act II, one finally feels the full weight of the orchestra, partly in the love music between Marta and her violinist boyfriend. Yet for all of its weaknesses amid the strengths, The Passenger shows how a Holocaust opera can hold the stage while examining important, complex issues – and could certainly point the way for future composers to deal with such important but delicate subject matter.