Monday, March 2, 2015

Lyric Opera of Chicago's The Passenger: Achingly expressive 5-star-plus riveting theatre

Amanda Majevski, Daveda Karanas and Brandon Jovanovich
At every performance of The Passenger, a confiscated violin is smashed because the violinist defiantly plays what he wants and not what his captors ordered, a murmuring chorus drags you into depths of despair and a woman is beaten senselessly. Here, on the stage of the Civic Theatre, in the league of the most riveting theatre you're likely to feel, Lyric Opera of Chicago's The Passenger is, at the very least, a five-star production.

On board a luxury cruise liner bound for Brazil in the 1960s, Liese, a former SS overseer at the Auschwitz concentration camp, sees a woman she is convinced is Marta, a prisoner she obsessed over but who she believed had perished. Travelling with her husband Walter, who is taking up a diplomatic posting, Liese divulges the secret to him for the first time. But, as far away as she journeys, her past is inescapable and Liese is both unrepentant and guilt-ridden as the hellish past emerges below deck.

Based on Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz's novel of the same name, The Passenger is touched by first-hand experience of Holocaust atrocities. Composer Miecyzslaw Weinberg, a Polish Jew who escaped to Russia during WWII, wrote his opera in 1968 to a libretto by Alexander Medvedev and director David Pountney's discovery of the work has transformed narrative and notes into an unforgettably moving work for the stage. Pountney's direction is meticulous, crafted as if witnessing a cinematically edited story in real time, drawing from his cast something not acted for the stage, but mined from the soul.

Below the deck of a white, elegantly streamlined ship, the Auschwitz camp is recreated with shocking pseudo-realism and ingenuity by set designer, the late John Engels. A railway carriage which rolls into and out of view on tracks doubles as the female barrack bunks while also supporting a chorus of onlookers above. Metal-braced lighting stanchions flank the camp and in the rear, the incinerators and "pitch black walls of death" lurk. Under Fabrice Kebour's graphic lighting, it's hard to imagine that this set has not witnessed the horror of Auschwitz and that Marie-Jeanne Lecca's costumes belong in a wardrobe when the cloth itself seems stained by its barbarity.

Musically, conductor Sir Andrew Davis honoured every achingly expressive gesture in Weinberg's music, one bound inextricably to the narrative and which brings alive the sense of place. Through every musical shift, including elements of Jazz, the fine musicianship of the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra was evident.

Amanda Majevski and Daveda Karanas
American soprano Amanda Majevski is genuinely outstanding and vocally mesmerising as Marta, the "Madonna of the barracks", and sings with extraordinary, wailing elasticity and excruciating beauty. There is strength and compassion in Marta's leadership while she imagines only the faintest hope of survival but is enlivened by the chance meeting with her boyfriend, Tadeusz. Gallantly performed by the warm, molten-voiced Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins in his company debut, Tadeusz is the one ordered to play the violin to the officers (though it's a double who stands in to impress).

As Liese, Greek-America mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas is authoritative and emotionally complex. With biting, solid vocal power, her turmoil and desperation as the older Liese is moving as she tries to garner sympathy for her former uniformed life of heeding and giving orders. Assured, evenly polished and large-voiced, American tenor Brandon Jovanovich is Walter, calculating in his sentimental attempts and more interested in his reputation than his wife's immediate breakdown, giving added clarity to Liese's own disconnected behaviour. And, amongst an entire cast that deserve praise, in her company debut, American soprano Kelly Kaduce takes the beating but rises to give a stunning performance as Kayta, the Russian freedom-fighter.

Few of us could understand an existence in such a place of evil where, as is often sung, "the gates only open inwards". If you've ever visited Auschwitz, The Passenger, with its characters gut-wrenchingly clinging to life and hope, will magnify your memories, bring tears from nowhere and beat anew at your emotional core. If you haven't, it will take you there.

Photos courtesy of Michael Brosilow

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