BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's US Premiere of THE PASSENGER is Brilliant
Houston Grand Opera is kicking off 2014 with the most harrowing and exhausting evening of opera I have ever experienced, and as an audience member I couldn't be more thrilled. If you're simply looking for entertainment, you'll be better off seeing RIGOLETTO (the other opera being performed in repertory with THE PASSENGER this January at Houston Grand Opera). However, if you're searching for a cerebral, gripping, and altogether emotional experience, then Houston Grand Opera's (HGO) US Premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg and Alexander Medvedev's THE PASSENGER delivers everything you're wanting and so much more.
Utilizing a version of the libretto that has been translated into English by David Pountney, HGO's production of THE PASSENGER introduces audiences to Liese, a woman on board a ship traveling to Brazil, and her Husband Walter, a German Diplomat. On the ship, Liese sees a woman whom she thinks could possibly be Marta, a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz for who she was an overseer. When Liese admits this to Walter he accuses her of lying to him and fears for his position as a politician; meanwhile, Liese is haunted by her memories of the human suffering that occurred at Auschwitz.
Bringing this dark epic to life is no simple undertaking. As a team, Conductor Patrick Summers, Director David Pountney, and Associate Director Rob Kearley have collaboratively created an evening of opera that keeps audiences glued to The Edge of their seats, distressed and heartbroken by the turmoil presented visually and aurally, and clutching to the glimmers of hope sprinkled throughout the piece. The unsettling tonality of the score paired with the unflinchingly violent aesthetic of the direction never allows the audience to feel truly comfortable, which keeps us attending to the drama, the disregard for human dignity, and the entirely visceral spectacle of the extraordinarily moving production.
As the titular passenger, soprano Melody Moore truly owns the evening as Marta. She sings with an emotional clarity and resonance that is especially effective throughout the entire piece. Likewise, her character work is stirring as well. Throughout her time at Auschwitz other prisoners teach her to never forgive those who imprisoned her. Therefore, within the narrative occurring on the ship, her choice to more-or-less follow Liese comes across as a passive revenge for the atrocities she and countless others endured in the concentration camp. Like a spectral visage, she immaculately haunts Liese on the boat. However, it is her performances in the scenes at Auschwitz that capture the audience by the heart and rips it from our chests. Her love for Tadeusz, her fiancé, is the hope that gives her the strength to live each day. As the officials at Auschwitz manipulate that love, the audience cannot help but feel devastated for her. Yet, in the opera's final moments, we are left hoping that Marta is able to recover some semblance of a normal life, which comes to us through a powerfully delivered aria.
Mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt brings sparkling life to Liese. Initially, the audience feels for her; however, as the story progresses we find ourselves becoming more and more disillusioned by the revealing of the truth of how implicit she was in torturing others. The audience is torn, feeling at times that she might just be a cog in a murderous machine, but in other moments we see her as a self-serving and rather heartless woman who enjoys schadenfreude. Most impressively, she embodies an intimidating, power figure while at Auschwitz, but on the boat she is crippled by her husband's disdain, making her more susceptible to Marta's passive revenge. Vocally, she impresses with a crispness that is striking against the complicated and complex score. Her enunciations are spotless, which especially magnifies her menacing persona in the Auschwitz scenes.
Additionally, soprano Kelly Kaduce's performance as Katya is a true highlight of the evening. Playing a strong willed Russian woman, her first appearance in the opera leaves the audience gasping because we are witnesses a brutal attack against her. Despite this, Kelly Kaduce creates a woman made of tempered steel and teaches the women in the barracks that they must never forgive. Her aria, a Russian ballad from her childhood, almost steals the show out from other performers as the audience is swept away by her incredible performance and the crushing blow that comes at the conclusion of the number. Like Marta haunts Liese, Kelly Kaduce's Katya haunts audiences for hours-even days-after the opera has ended.
The remainder of the cast all give incredible performances as well. Being a modern opera, the score for THE PASSENGER is as challenging for the audience as it is the performers. There are no hummable melodies that stick with the audience. Instead, the entirety of the vocal line is a true panoply of sounds arranged to create turbulent chords that refuse to let the audience sit at ease. The music from the orchestra pit is just as discomforting and jarring. With no noticeable tonal help from the pit, each member of the cast finds and lands pitches, creating a wall of sound that elicits devastating emotionality. Furthermore, the way the chorus and cast blends together to create such hushed silence at key moments despite large numbers is truly fascinating and highly effective too. Memorable performances are given by Kathryn Day as Bronka whose prayers are particularly breathtaking, Joseph Kaiser's politically minded Walter, and Morgan Smith's lovelorn and loyal Tadeusz.
As an opera THE PASSENGER takes audiences on an unforgettable journey. This is mirrored in Johan Engels clever and highly mobile set design. The floor is lined with railroad tracks that are used to move large, boxcar-like pieces that allow for scenes to take place in different environs within Auschwitz. Additionally, the second story of the set, representing the boat, has a rake that appears to be quite steep, which gives this immobile portion of the set the appearance of movement that one would expect from an ocean liner sailing across the sea.
Marie-Jeanne lecca's costume design is visually appealing and uses color, or the lack thereof, to help audiences better comprehend the evocative piece. For scenes happening on the boat, all the costumes are clean, impeccably tailored, and vibrantly white. For the scenes happening in Auschwitz, the costumes of the prisoners appear darkened by dirt and grime and utilize gray and brown tones. The guards and German officials are clothed in black uniforms. This disparity in clothing is deeply arresting throughout a majority of the production; however, it is most striking during the transition from Act II, Scene 4 to Act II, Scene 5. For the final moments of the opera, Marta is dressed in lovely, light blues, showing that a change has occurred for her character.
Lighting Deisgn by Fabrice Kebour is wondrously atmospheric and moody for the entirety of the production. From the moment the orchestra begins to play the overture and all that is lit is the curtain until the final washes of opulent blues at the end of Act II, every cue is meticulously programmed to be severely meaningful. Throughout a majority of the production the lighting elements are stark and harsh, illuminating the disregard for humanity within the opera's story. Yet, the most interesting and effective lighting choice comes from the manual operation of searchlights in the Auschwitz scenes. This choice ingeniously forces the audience to recognize the danger, fear, and cruelty of the prison camp in an inventively nonverbal way.
While it is certainly difficult to watch, the only appropriate superlative to describe HGO's US Premiere of THE PASSENGER is brilliant. Every element is perfectly in place to make this production one that sticks with every member of the audience for some time to come. Yes, audiences may leave worn out and even depressed, but they will be thankful for experiencing such a masterful piece.
Houston Grand Opera's US Premiere of THE PASSENGER runs now through February 2, 2014 in the Brown Theater at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas Avenue, Houston, 77002. Performances are January 22, 25, and 31 at 7:30 p.m. and February 2 at 2:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-OPERA (6737).
If you are unable to catch HGO's production of THE PASSENGER in Houston, the company will perform the opera at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York in July 2014. The performances will mark the first time an American Opera Company has toured to New York City since the Festival's inaugural year in 1996. THE PASSENGER will be staged in the Park Avenue Armory, with three performances on July 10, 12, and 13, 2014. For more information about these performances, please visit http://www.lincolncenterfestival.org.