It’s a brave composer that chooses to set his first opera in a Nazi concentration camp. Apart from the difficulty of delivering dramatic impetus while ensuring taste and sensitivity, such a venture also risks producing something that might be too bleak to have any popular appeal. However, Mieczys³aw Weinberg’s 1968 opera, The Passenger, manages to avoid these pitfalls while providing a stimulating theatrical experience.

Some of the credit for this must go to Alexander Medvedev, who produced the well structured libretto, not to mention Auschwitz survivor, Zofia Posmysz, who wrote the novel on which the opera is based. However, much of the credit is due to the sensitive scoring of Weinberg himself, a Polish composer who fled the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 and spent most of his adult life in Moscow, where he became a colleague and friend of Shostakovich.

Weinberg was a prolific composer, producing no less than seven operas, 26 symphonies and music for over 40 films. His style is sufficiently close to that of Shostakovich that it’s sometimes difficult to tell their music apart, which perhaps accounts for his relative obscurity. Nevertheless, his music is melodically distinctive, rhythmically powerful and arrestingly scored.

Despite being described by Shostakovich as ‘a perfect masterpiece’, The Passenger did not find favour with the Soviet authorities and remained unperformed throughout Weinberg’s lifetime, not seeing the light of day until a concert performance in 2006. A staging then took place at the Bregenz Festival in 2010 under the direction of David Pountney, and it’s this production that has now come to ENO.

The story focuses on Liese Franz, a German woman who is travelling on a ship to Brazil with her husband. Liese sees a fellow passenger that she thinks she recognises as a woman she knows as Marta. It turns out that Liese was a guard in Auschwitz and Marta was a prisoner. The opera alternates between the events that took place in Auschwitz fifteen years earlier and the effect of those memories as they affect Liese.

Johan Engels’s set design realises Medvedev’s original concept in having a representation of the ship at the top of the stage and the prison camp at the bottom. This allows instantaneous flashbacks between past and present, an extremely effective mechanism. The representation of Auschwitz is striking, with railway tracks that are both suggestive of the concentration camp as well as facilitating movement of the stage furniture. The outfits worn by the guards and inmates are suitably naturalistic, and use of lighting is vivid and dramatic.

The complexity of Liese’s role as proud camp guard and guilt-scarred civilian is eloquently brought to life by the South African mezzo soprano Michelle Breedt, while soprano Giselle Allen strongly projects Marta’s dignity and defiance. The performances by tenor Kim Begley as Liese’s self-absorbed husband Walter and baritone Leigh Melrose as Marta’s valiant fiancé Tadeusz are also distinguished. The many other roles are cast from strength, and Julia Sporsén’s rendering of Katya’s Russian folk song is especially touching. Conductor Sir Richard Armstrong leads a well drilled and impassioned account of Weinberg’s score, and chorus’ contribution is strong.

If ultimately The Passenger doesn’t quite have the emotional impact of an opera by Berg or Janáèek, it would nevertheless be difficult to imagine a more effective or authoritative production than ENO’s presentation of Pountney’s production.

- Christian Hoskins