The Passenger, English National Opera, London<br/>St Matthew Passion, NT Olivier, London

A former concentration camp prisoner and guard come face to face at the Coliseum. But Bach is the star, wherever you look...
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The Independent Culture

Premiered in Bregenz last year, and now revived for English National Opera, Mieczyslaw Weinberg's 1968 opera The Passenger buckles under the weight of history.

Its author is a Polish Catholic who survived three years in Auschwitz, its composer a Polish Jew whose family perished. First a radio play, then a novel, then a film, then an opera, its subject is a chance encounter between a former SS guard and one of her prisoners. Part testament, part memorial, it is also an examination of moral amnesia in the decade after the Nuremberg Trials.

Thrice translated, by librettist Alexander Medvedev, David Fanning, and now director David Pountney, Zofia Posmysz's story moves between two time frames and locations. The "now" is a glossy white ocean liner, carrying former SS guard Annaliese (Michelle Breedt) and her diplomat husband Walter (Kim Begley) to a posting in Brazil in the early 1960s. The "then" is the railway sidings of Auschwitz. Whereas in real life Posmysz heard in Paris a voice she mistook for that of her captor, in the opera, Annaliese sees a fellow passenger she believes to have been her prisoner. Denied any opportunity to testify against the real SS guard, Posmysz puts the imagined Annaliese on trial – lost in a frenzy of half-truths and self-justification, while her husband frets over the effect any revelation of her past will have on his career.

While Annaliese squirms with self-pity, staggering backwards down the steps that lead from the ship to the camp in Johan Engels's spec-tacular split-level set, the story of the prisoner, Marta (Giselle Allen), and her violinist lover, Tadeusz (Leigh Melrose) is told in flashback, with a dour male chorus as jury. To their voices are added those of a few of the millions who were slaughtered, among them the 15-year-old Parisienne Yvette, Russian partisan Katya, devout Polish Catholic Bronka, and a nameless woman driven mad by the violence of the selection process. Weinberg's characterisation of them is tentative, as if he were afraid to disturb the dead, though Katya's unaccompanied folksong is one of the strongest moments in an uneven score.

The other impressive statement comes from Bach, whose Chaconne in D minor is played by Tadeusz in a fatal act of resistance. Much like Tippett's use of Schubert in The Knot Garden, its abstract serenity exposes the clumsiness with which Weinberg elsewhere navigates between dour slabs of Babi Yar-esque chorus writing ("Pitch black wall of death"), the smooth sambas of the ship's band and the chaotic unravelling of Annaliese's defence as she recalls her attempts to seduce love and respect from the disdainful Marta ("We could never understand how they hated us!"). However sincere in its ambition, Weinberg's descriptive writing is crude – hollow cataclysms of timpani, fey wisps of flute, squalling shrieks of brass, a migraine frenzy of xylophones. In the pit, Sir Richard Armstrong marshalls his orchestra with grim determination.

Many will be moved by the stories behind The Passenger and its subsequent suppression in Soviet Russia. The commitment of ENO's cast, most particularly the tireless honesty of Breedt and Allen, is remarkable. Posmysz's imagining of the former SS guard and her husband, confronted with a past that both wish to forget, has a moral rigour that is notably lacking in, say, The Reader. This does not make Weinberg's opera good or even useful in understanding how the cradle of European culture became an industrial charnel house.

Like Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice, The Passenger oversimplifies the horror. In the Coliseum, where striped pyjamas and Nazi uniforms have been seen in many non-Holocaust operas, the impact is further diluted. In 1968, there was an urgency to tell, to break silence, to bear witness. In 2011, with decades of meticulous scholarship and artistic responses behind us, the revival of The Passenger seems like another product of the Holocaust Industry. Better to watch Claude Lanzmann's Shoah and listen to Bach.

Almost 20 years old, Jonathan Miller's production of the St Matthew Passion has returned to London. Much like The Passenger, it is an attempt to stage the unstageable. In 1993, it was shocking. After Deborah Warner's Messiah and St John Passion, and Katie Mitchell's St Matthew, it seems cosy, even quaint. Dressed in jeans, the cast are less universal than homogenous, as though they had been beamed up from a branch of Waitrose. Odd man out is Hadleigh Adams's Jesus, snatched from the lobby of a modelling agency. Outstanding tenor arias (Benjamin Hulett) and Andrew Staples's Evangelist aside, the singing is variable. Conductor Paul Goodwin draws some finely detailed, idiomatic playing from Southbank Sinfonia, but the most powerful moment is, again, the simplest, as violinist Matthew Truscott and counter-tenor Tim Mead console a sobbing Peter (Robert Clarke) in "Erbarme dich".

'The Passenger': (0871 911 0200) to 25 Oct. 'St Matthew Passion': (020-7452 3000 to 2 Oct)

Next Week:

Finn conducts Finn. Anna Picard hears Esa Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia in Sibelius's epic Kullervo

Classical Choice

Andris Nelsons conducts Christian Tetzlaff and the CBSO in Dvorák's Violin Concerto, plus Strauss and Brahms, at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Wed. Southbank Centre celebrates the music of Pierre Boulez in Exquisite Labyrinth, a mini-festival with London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Boulez himself, Fri-Sun.

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