MOT’s ‘The Passenger’ a powerful production

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News

Dramatically searing and intensely harrowing, Michigan Opera Theatre’s production of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera “The Passenger” grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let go — even after the work, which opened Saturday night at the Detroit Opera House, is over.

Set both in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II and on an ocean liner about 20 years later, the 1968 opera gains its dramatic momentum on the ship when a former SS guard, Liese, believes she recognizes Marta, a prisoner Liese thought had died at Auschwitz.

Liese and her diplomat husband, Walter, are bound for Brazil where he’s to take a new post.

But their journey is far from smooth sailing. Liese must confront her past, beginning with telling Walter about her overseer position in the camp, which he never knew.

What’s so vitally intriguing in this production is that it’s never really clear if Marta is the passenger Liese thinks she is, or if Liese’s demonic past is haunting her so much that she’s just imagining it. To add to the ambiguity, Marta appears on the ship with a gossamer veil over her face, lending her a wraith-like quality — a ghostly reminder of the terrors of the Holocaust. If she’s not actually physically present, her spirit is certainly alive.

Some have faulted the opera for not having a confrontation scene between Liese and Marta, but that’s precisely what gives the opera its power. We think there’s going to be a confrontation as Marta walks down the stairs toward Liese, but then she walks right by her, like a spirit.

“The Passenger” is based on a radio play — later turned into a novel — by Zofia Posmysz, a Polish Catholic woman who was imprisoned at Auschwitz for her anti-Nazi activities. The story appealed to Weinberg because he lost his parents and sister in the camps. A Polish Jew, Weinberg escaped on foot to Russia, but the anti-Semitic climate kept his opera suppressed. It received its fully staged premiere in Austria in 2010. MOT is only the third American company to mount the work, which Weinberg, who died in 1996, never lived to see.

Under the direction of Rob Kearley (who worked closely with David Pountney, the original stage director), the action moves seamlessly between the liner, set atop a two-tiered set, and Auschwitz, placed on the bottom level, suggesting the hellish underworld of the camp. Johan Engels’ sets are eerily effective.

Conductor Steven Mercurio shapes this long and rhythmically shifting score into a cohesive whole and coaxes energetic but subtle playing from the MOT orchestra.

Weinberg’s music is often likened to his friend Dimitri Shostakovich’s biting sarcasm. Certainly there are echoes of Shostakovich in the score’s sardonic passages, but Weinberg’s musical palette is broad. One also hears suggestions of Prokofiev, Weill and even Britten.

Costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca deserves high marks. The grimy, shabby garb of the prisoners is contrasted with the all-white gleam of the ocean liner. Everyone is dressed in white, as though they exist in a sanitized world far removed from reality.

But all of these production touches would mean little if the singers weren’t convincing.

As unsympathetic as her role is, mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas delves keenly into her character, showing her as a woman rationalizing her behavior at Auschwitz as just following orders, and even refers to the prisoners as being “blinded by hate.” Karanas also has a big, confident voice, shaded by sunset colors.

David Danholt is effectively bland as the rather colorless Walter, always in his wife’s shadow.

As Marta, Adrienn Miksch projects tenderness and pain in her high, fragile soprano, punctuated by feathery pianissimos.

Her fellow women prisoners all turn in fine performances. There’s a particularly moving scene when Yvette (Angela Theis), a French prisoner, conjugates the French verb “to live” for Bronka (Liubov Sokolova), an older Slavic captive.

But the scene in which Marta is reunited with her fiancé, Tadeusz (well sung by baritone Marian Pop), lacks dramatic power. After being separated, it would be natural that they would run into each other’s arms, and director Kearley should have moved in that direction. Also, Weinberg should have composed a romantic duet for the pair, which would momentarily brighten the almost unremitting gloom of the drama.

Tadeusz has his own incisive scene when he’s asked to play the Commandant’s favorite waltz. Instead, he plays Bach’s sublime “Chaconne in D Minor,” as if to remind his German captors what their culture is capable of achieving. But he’s hauled off and killed for his defiance.

At nearly three hours, “The Passenger” could profit from a few trims without losing any of its potency. But as it is, this opera, bleak as it is, is an emotionally gripping story of inhumanity that’s eventually vanquished by humanity.

‘The Passenger’

Through Nov. 22 at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit

Tickets: $29-$160