Ghost Ship: The Lincoln Center Festival’s ‘Passenger’ Was Visually Striking But Empty

Soprano Melody Moore, lower right, in 'The Passenger.' (©Stephanie Berger)

Soprano Melody Moore, lower right, in ‘The Passenger.’ (©Stephanie Berger)

It used to be that opera in New York stopped when “the season” ended in early May, since everyone who was anyone would flee Manhattan for the summer. Last weekend, though, even as the denizens of the Upper East Side boarded the Hampton Jitney, fascinating opera productions overlapped in the East 60s.

Invading the Park Avenue Armory Saturday was The Passenger, a Russian opera by the Polish-Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg. This presentation of the Lincoln Center Festival is based on a story by concentration camp survivor Zofia Posmysz that had previously inspired a radio play, a novel and a film. Though Weinberg’s mentor Dmitri Shostakovich was a fierce advocate for the opera when it was completed in 1968, the piece was suppressed by Soviet authorities and remained unperformed until 2006.

The theme of the opera is intensely serious and lofty, a meditation on the culpability of those in the lower echelons of command in the death camps. In the libretto by Alexander Medvedev (performed here in a stilted English translation by the piece’s director, David Pountney) the first scenes of the opera take the form of a suspense thriller. Middle-aged Liese and her diplomat husband, Walter, are sailing to his new post in Brazil when she sees a mysterious woman on deck. Is it Marta, a prisoner with whom Liese struck up a friendship when she was a guard in a concentration camp during the war?

The tale continues in flashback. According to Liese, she tried to help Marta meet her lover Tadeusz at the camp, and she still resents what she regards as Marta’s lack of gratitude for this favor. Tadeusz, a violinist, was ordered to play a waltz to entertain the camp’s commandant, but, in protest, he substituted a Bach chaconne and was dragged off to be executed. An epilogue depicts the surviving Marta returning to the site of the camp and vowing never to forget the deaths of her fellow prisoners.

What a disappointment, then, that The Passenger treats such immensely powerful material in a manner that is always conventional and often downright clumsy. Dramatically, Liese’s confession to her husband of her SS past is so anticlimactic as to be almost farcical: he’s worried for a moment about damage to his career, but soon after tries to cheer her up with dinner and dancing. There is very little in the way of character development, probably because the story is loaded down with a multitude of bit players who appear to sing a few lines and then are never heard from again.

But the real problem here is the music. Weinberg’s thundering post-Romantic orchestral writing must have been intended to evoke the horrors of genocide, but, almost 50 years later, it sounds more like The Horror of Frankenstein. Tympani thunder, woodwinds shriek, pizzicato strings plunk out suspenseful sequences: it all sounds like the soundtrack of a Hammer film, generic and synthetic. And, like many post World War II composers, Weinberg doesn’t give the voices many chances to soar, or even to sing melody. The vocal lines are mostly arioso, handy for getting the text across, but dry and emotionless.

The few moments when the score takes on real beauty are incidental to the story at hand. Toward the end of the second act, Marta turns to Katya, a Russian prisoner and asks her to sing a folk song. She complies (“Babushka used to sing this …”), and the lonely melody she slowly unfurls is almost unbearably gorgeous. It’s a ravishing moment that justifies the casting of the superb lyric soprano Kelly Kaduce in this cameo part. But there’s the problem: we never get to know Katya since she’s only in this one scene. The song, exquisite as it is, feels like an interpolation.

Though the piece itself is uneven, Mr. Pountney’s spellbinding staging elevated it to genuine festival status. He placed the “present” and “past” action on a multilevel set by Johan Engels that stacked the glistening white deck of the German ocean liner atop the grimy confines of the prison camp. Changes of locale within the camp were accomplished with large scenic units rolling on railroad tracks, a visual echo of the “Holocaust trains” that transported prisoners to their doom.

While this three-story set must have looked impressive at conventional theaters such as the English National Opera and the Houston Grand Opera, where this production has previously played, it was simply breathtaking surrounded by arching girders and steel bleachers in the vast expanses of the Armory. Surprisingly, the acoustically tricky space flattered the orchestral sound under the alert baton of conductor Patrick Summers, though the singers’ voices were obviously amplified.

The problem with this kind of Broadway-style sound enhancement in opera is that it tends to reduce the dynamic range of singing to a narrow band of mezzo-forte, losing the capability either for nuance or for the sheer aural wallop a great singer can deliver on a high C. As such, it’s hard to make any definitive judgment about the cast of The Passenger. It was clear, though, that Melody Moore (Marta) wielded a powerful, bright spinto soprano, unflinching in the high, screamy tessitura in which Weinberg’s music so often landed her.

Michelle Breedt’s vibrant mezzo brought a tinge of hysteria to Liese’s outbursts, and Joseph Kaiser’s brisk tenor sounded properly banal as Walter. As the heroic Tadeusz, Morgan Smith belted out his defiance in a muscular baritone, and his violin playing looked utterly convincing too.

Cecilia Violetta Lopez in 'La Traviata.' (Photo by Jen Joyce Davis)

Cecilia Violetta Lopez in ‘La Traviata.’ (Photo by Jen Joyce Davis)

Just down the block from the cavernous Armory lies the intimate Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. This 600-seat, acoustically friendly venue welcomed the young artists of the Martina Arroyo Foundation Prelude to Performance program Thursday night for a production of Verdi’s La Traviata remarkable for its delicacy and charm.

Daniel Lipton’s fleet conducting and Laura Alley’s detailed, traditional production framed a performance of the leading role of Violetta that is among the loveliest I have witnessed on any stage. Cecilia Violetta Lopez’s cool, shimmering soprano easily vaulted the coloratura hurdles of the first act, rocketing to a bright, pingy version of the traditionally interpolated high E-flat at the end of “Sempre libera.” Even more impressive was her quiet legato singing in the second and third acts, unaffected and heartfelt.

And she acted even more naturally than she sang, suggesting the courtesan’s hectic life of pleasure in the first act with delicate dancelike movements before “melting” into a softer, but still elegant, body language for the more demure second act. Even in the last act, when Violetta is slowly dying, Ms. Lopez maintained a measure of grace, as if she were enacting a romantic memory of death rather than the harsh reality.

The conventional wisdom is that high-concept opera like The Passenger is the future of musical theater, but Ms. Lopez’s promising debut suggests that the old-fashioned virtues of a fine diva performance may be just as likely to keep the art alive in the 21st century.