The Passenger (London Coliseum)

This opera isn’t the triumph that some have hailed it as.

The Passenger
London Coliseum, London WC2

When 88-year-old author and Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz stepped out onto the Coliseum stage after the UK premiere of The Passenger the audience rose as one. An ovation was the only possible response - applauding survival and dignity in the face of horror - but that didn't stop it feeling incongruous, glib even.

For the experience of the Holocaust, whether or not it lies beyond artistic expression, surely lies - or should - beyond applause, beyond the packaging and presentation an evening at the opera necessarily entails. A novel, a painting, these are private artistic acts, but opera is a genre of artifice, exaggeration; historical truth emerges distorted from its hall of mirrors, heightened maybe, but rarely sincere and often debased.

More powerful in many ways than the opera itself is its history. Based on Posmysz's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, The Passenger was composed in 1968 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg - a Russian Jew who fled from Poland and the Nazis, the sole member of his family to escape the camps. Denied staged performance under Soviet rule, it was only at last year's Bregenz Festival that the opera had its premiere, too late for Weinberg (who died in 1996) to see his greatest work.

Echoes of Poland's national epic Pan Tadeusz can be found in Posmysz's story, which focuses on the Polish rather than Jewish experience of Auschwitz. In place of Mickiewicz's mysterious hooded priest Robak we have Marta, a veiled woman stalking the decks of a 1950s cruise ship. Encountered by Annaliese Franz, once an overseer at Auchwitz, and her diplomat husband Walter, she is recognised as a Polish prisoner from the camps - a woman once bound in a sadistic intimacy with Liese. The sight of Marta prompts Liese to confess her past to her husband, and as she recalls her experiences we relive them, moving below deck to the memories stowed away beneath.

David Pountney's production (the original Bregenz staging) plays with layered memory and denial in its multi-level visuals. We move, ever more painfully, between the cream-coloured elegance of the upper deck, where solicitous waiters proffer drinks to the accompaniment of a jazz band, to the dark past below. Railway tracks reach out to the audience, dragging us into the camp where shaven-headed prisoners are lined up before us for the leisurely morning triage of life and death.

Musically the two worlds are yoked together, never quite releasing Liese from her memories. Jazz passages are inflected with the grotesque, recalling if never quite superceding the musical rictus of Weinberg's hero Shostkovich, while Britten's bitonal unease is everywhere, animating the tense relationship between singers and orchestra.

Grasping after the unspeakable, Weinberg's fragmented utterances spend Act I rejecting the illusion of melody, a persistent chant "pitch black wall of death" the only acceptable (if rather blunt) substitute. Act II however finds release in unaccompanied Russian folksong and a closing aria for Marta ("Do not forgive them").

But while the violence and nihilism of the Act I score is unsatisfying, Act II's seems actively disingenuous - speaking of action beyond forgiveness while musically surrendering, offering resolution. Dramatically too Weinberg seems unable to sustain the crisis of his work, giving us a philosophising postlude in place of a climactic confrontation between Liese and Marta. Pountney himself does little to mask the weakness of Weinberg's score, his precise direction treating it almost as soundtrack, grounding the music in the literal where it needs allusive freedom.

Conducted by Sir Richard Armstrong, English National Opera's performance is exemplary however. Soloists are led by Michelle Breedt's Liese, who has the technique and control to articulate the tormented psychology Pountney demands of her. While the ensemble of carefully characterised female prisoners all make their mark, it is Julia Sporsen's Katya (she of the folksong) and Rhian Lois's fragile Yvette that dominate - tender foils to the steely passion of Giselle Allen's Marta.

Staging Weinberg's suppressed opera is a triumphant act. The stories of both Posmysz and Weinberg himself deserve to be heard, and with their fiction anchored in reality by the physical presence of Posmysz there can be few who would deny the value of The Passenger as cultural-historical experience. Yet is this sufficient to make the opera itself the triumph some have claimed it? Auden spoke of the limitations of history for the defeated; it "...may say Alas, but cannot help or pardon." Weinberg's opera weeps and wrings its hands over the corpses of the Holocaust, imploring us as audience to weep with him. We do. But it is not enough.

“The Passenger" runs until 25 October

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?