by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Sept. 5, 2011
In 1959, Zofia Posmysz, a Polish writer who survived Auschwitz, was walking in the Place de la Concorde when she heard a German tourist calling out in a terrifyingly familiar voice. For a moment, she thought that she was about to have an unwanted reunion with one of Auschwitz’s female guards. Posmysz proceeded to write a radio play called “Passenger in Cabin 45,” which describes such an incident from the opposite perspective. Lisa, a former Aufseherin, or Auschwitz overseer, is travelling with her husband on an ocean liner when she sees a solitary passenger who appears to be Marta, a prisoner from the camp. It is a study in the nuances of complicity, with the guard, a woman not wholly evil but in no way good, reliving memories of Auschwitz and struggling to tell her husband the truth of her role. The confrontation that she dreads does not take place; the other woman disembarks at the next port, and the ship sails on.
Posmysz’s play, which she then turned into a novel, inspired two remarkable adaptations. One is Andrzej Munk’s film “The Passenger,” released in unfinished form after the director died in a car accident, in 1961. Munk filmed the flashbacks on location in Auschwitz, obtaining several of the most unnerving Holocaust scenes in movie history—notably, a sequence in which the male camp orchestra performs for the commandant and his staff. The music is the Adagio of Bach’s E-Major Violin Concerto, and a bespectacled female officer is following along with a score. The whistle of an arriving train disrupts the proceedings. The officer closes her score regretfully, and the commandant pats her on the back, as if to say, “Duty calls.” The scene is based on Posmysz’s memories of the camp orchestras, although in her experience they mostly played Strauss waltzes and Nazi pop songs on the order of “Musik, Musik, Musik.”
In 1967, the Polish-born Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg, a friend and follower of Dmitri Shostakovich, set to work on an opera of “The Passenger.” Weinberg knew the world of Posmysz’s story, having grown up in a Jewish household and witnessed brutal killings during his flight from Poland to Russia, in 1939. He later learned that his parents and sister had perished in the camps. Anti-Semitism stalked him again in the final years of Stalin’s regime; his father-in-law, the great Russian Jewish actor Solomon Mikhoels, was put to death in 1948, and in early 1953 Weinberg himself spent several months in prison, a victim of the Doctors’ Plot persecution. David Fanning, in his biography of Weinberg, notes that Shostakovich helped to bring “The Passenger” to his friend’s attention, perhaps perceiving that no one was better suited to set it to music.
In Weinberg’s opera, which has a libretto by the music critic Alexander Medvedev, the concert becomes a gesture of resistance: Tadeusz, Marta’s fiancé, is supposed to play the commandant’s favorite waltz, but instead launches into Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor, with the orchestra bashing out dissonant chords behind him. It’s more melodramatic than the corresponding scene in the film, but Weinberg handles it with masterly detachment, letting Bach sing out purely and then effectively shutting the music down, as if the notes were sticking in the air. Shostakovich, in an essay on the opera, declared that “the tragic strength of this scene can barely be described in words.”
“The Passenger” went into rehearsal at the Bolshoi in 1968, but no performance resulted. Evidently, the opera’s emphasis on Polish and Jewish suffering, as opposed to the Russian struggle, made it undesirable. Incredibly, the stage première took place only last summer, at the Bregenz Festival, in Austria; a Blu-ray video is now available, from the Neos label. If not quite a “perfect masterpiece,” as Shostakovich claimed, it is a work of concentrated power that outweighs most other attempts to dramatize the Holocaust.
Weinberg was a kind of unknown passenger on the ship of the twentieth century—a man who withdrew increasingly into a private musical world. He was hugely prolific, completing seven operas, twenty-one symphonies, seventeen string quartets, and dozens of concertos and sonatas, and in later years he seemed hardly to care whether his music was performed. Humble to a fault, he stopped calling his orchestral pieces symphonies when he decided that the quantity seemed presumptuous. It is impossible to separate his life story from that of Shostakovich, whom he first met in 1943, when he was twenty-three. From his student days onward, Weinberg was besotted with Shostakovich’s music—its colossal displays of force, its stretches of desolate lyricism, its parodies and secret games—and never escaped its shadow.
The first impression is of an epigone. So I thought for years, listening to the few Weinberg recordings that came my way. Recently, though, I became entranced by a disk of the 1944 Piano Quintet, by the ARC Ensemble, and began to perceive the subtle ways in which Weinberg stands apart from his hero. There is often more earthy warmth in his melodic writing, a kind of undamaged folkish innocence, and yet much of the later music exudes a wide-open strangeness that suggests a man in a suit wandering in a desert. In the past few years, CDs have been more frequent— the excellent Danel Quartet has recorded four volumes of the string quartets for CPO, and Chandos has so far released seven of the symphonies, as well as the klezmer-inflected Clarinet Concerto—and when you compare dates you realize that sometimes it’s Shostakovich who echoes Weinberg. For example, at the beginning of the second scene of “The Passenger,” the descent into Auschwitz, the violins are locked into a ghostly, meandering, twelve-tonish pattern; similar effects appear in Shostakovich’s final works. More is waiting to be discovered; according to Fanning, six of the symphonies, including a “Kaddish” in memory of the Warsaw ghetto, have apparently not yet been performed.
Even when Weinberg’s music is less inspired, it is expertly made, and you get the feeling that he could meet any challenge. Like many Soviet composers, he earned a living from film scores, cartoon scores, and circus pieces. (Russians of a certain age will remember his harpsichord theme for “Winnie-the-Pooh.”) This chameleonlike aspect served him well in “The Passenger,” because the story pivots on jarring contrasts—the ersatz paradise of the ocean liner set against the man-made hell of Auschwitz. The expected sombre passages in the opera are superbly done: bass chants of lamentation, plaintive songs for female prisoners of various nationalities, hammering ostinatos evocative of the industry of death. But it’s the addition of kitsch that makes the work supremely chilling: the anemic jazz that plays on board the ship; the lopsidedly bouncing music, in 5/8 time, over which Lisa explains to her husband that she was merely following orders; and, most of all, the commandant’s rancid waltz, which alternately sputters out over loudspeakers and thunders from the full orchestra.
The Blu-ray of “The Passenger”— one of a number of deluxe, high-definition opera videos that have lately come on the market—records a thoughtful and mostly splendid production. David Pountney, the director, wisely avoids documentary realism, instead giving the Auschwitz scenes an unreal sheen. (These are Lisa’s memories, after all.) The upper level of the set serves as the deck of the ocean liner, with adroit lighting changes enacting the slippage from pleasure to horror. Only the chaconne climax falls short: it seems a bit blatant. Pountney also commissioned a multilingual version of the libretto, in Russian, German, English, French, Czech, and Yiddish; Weinberg’s cosmopolitan score accommodates them all. Teodor Currentzis, the conductor, delivers a ferocious performance. Among the singers, Michelle Breedt is especially acute as Lisa, hinting that the psychological games she plays with Marta are inflected by unspoken desire. The ultimate ambiguity of the plot is that we cannot be sure if Lisa really sees Marta on the ship. The Aufseherin may be hallucinating, her mind corroded by guilt and fear.
With one exception, the creators of “The Passenger” are gone. Weinberg died in 1996, having realized in his final days that he would never hear the opera. Medvedev, the librettist, passed away last summer, five days after the Bregenz première. But Zofia Posmysz is still with us, at eighty-eight; in a short documentary included with the Blu-ray, you see her bowing with the cast in Bregenz. That night, she was wearing a medallion that was given to her by a Polish officer named Tadeusz Paulone, who was killed in Auschwitz in 1943. She will shortly travel to London for the British première of “The Passenger,” at the English National Opera, on September 19th. The Lincoln Center Festival plans to present the piece in the next few years; let’s hope that Posmysz will be able to take a curtain call once again, in memory of the others.
More: Zofia Posmysz's memories of music at Auschwitz.