Magazine article The Spectator

Chance Encounter

Magazine article The Spectator

Chance Encounter

Article excerpt

The Passenger

English National Opera, in rep until 25 October

Is it possible to write a great opera, or a great work of art of any kind, about Auschwitz?

One thing is clear: it would have to be truly great. The very idea of a fairly good work, or for that matter a fairly bad one, with such a subject is absurd. And not only absurd, but also revolting. Take Bernhard Schlink's novel The Reader, which was published to much acclaim 14 years ago, but which was soon seen to be a meretricious concoction by discerning readers, just on account of its attempting to illuminate the Holocaust by relating it to subsequent events and 'relationships'.

The most moving and powerful writing on the subject is Primo Levi's If This Is a Man, and that is factual and baldly so. It is understandable that those who endured the Holocaust and survived should spend the rest of their lives remembering it and insisting that no one forget that it happened. That is what Levi did, and what the great movie Shoah does. But art? What could that add to our feelings or our understanding? Or should it, could it, tell us what our feelings and understanding should be?

Approaching The Passenger by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, then, I admit that I was prejudiced against it. It is an adaptation from the novel Pasazerka by Zofia Posmysz, herself a survivor of Auschwitz. Weinberg was a Polish Jew who escaped from Poland to the Soviet Union when Hitler invaded in 1939. He wrote seven operas, of which this was the first, and was greatly influenced and admired by Shostakovich. Earlier this year Opera North staged, brilliantly, The Portrait, but I was not convinced that it dealt adequately with its theme, the nature of artistic integrity.

Clearly, nothing could test that subject more severely than an opera in which a Holocaust survivor encounters, 15 years after emerging from Auschwitz, one of her SS guards, on a liner sailing to Brazil. First we get the ex-guard and her husband, a German diplomat about to take up his appointment. His wife's past would do his career no good, so they both have reason to be frightened - and it is only now that Liese his wife tells him all about herself.

This early 1960s story alternates with scenes in the camp. The stage is divided, vertically, into the liner above and the prisoners' bunks beneath, a vivid enough rendering of that hell. We learn that Liese has realised, in the camp, that Marta, the passenger she is later appalled to recognise, is someone who can help her control the other prisoners. …

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