UBC Opera
Pasazerka (The Passenger)
by Mieczslaw Weinberg, libretto by Alexander Medvedev

Dates and Venue January 30 and 31, February 1 and 2, 2020 at 7.30pm | Chan Centre for the Performing Arts

Conductor David Agler Director Nancy Hermiston Set Design Alessia Carpoca Lighting Design Jeremy Baxter Costume Designer Parvin Mirhady Production and Technical DirectorGrant Windsor Stage Manager Jacqueline Wax

UBC Opera Ensemble with alternating cast, Vancouver Opera Orchestra



Sung in Russian, Polish, German, Yiddish, French, English and Czech with English surtitles

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera Pasazerka (The Passenger) is a stunning work, percussive and lyrical, tender and fierce, frightening and resolute. It is not easy. Yet Nancy Hermiston and her young cast bravely chose to tackle this challenging work and succeeded triumphantly.

Pasazerka touches on themes of guilt, cruelty, kindness, on betrayal, courage, cowardice, survival and love both in appalling circumstances and in the best.

Based on a partly biographical radio play and novel by Zofia Posmysz, it begins with Walter (Turgut Akmete) and Lisa (Irem Ince), a West German diplomat and his wife en route to a Brazilian posting. Amidst the glamorous passengers on board Lisa thinks she recognizes someone, a woman she believes to be dead. Terrified she begins to tell Walter about her past. The scene now moves from the elegant, bright ocean liner high above the main stage, to the women’s barracks at Auschwitz below, dark and monotone, the two sections linked by a stair. The action shifts between the two worlds of past and present. Events in one world are paralleled or contrasted in the other in many ways, both subtle and less so.

We see that Lisa is an SS warder. Trained by her supervisor (Cassie Chang), she tries to befriend Marta (Taryn Plater), a political prisoner, in order to manipulate and control all the women and so begins a struggle between the two.

In the camp, we are introduced to some of the inmates. They come from different backgrounds and countries which matches the historical facts. Auschwitz held Russian partisans, members of the French resistance, Roman Catholics, Germans and Poles who protested against the Nazis or defended Jews. Surprisingly there is only one Jewish character, a Greek woman from Thessaloniki. But it is the relationships amongst the women that are important rather than their histories. We see their kindnesses to one another, their anger and their overwhelming sadness. There are cruelty and violence too from the SS men and their officers

Lisa soon discovers that Marta has a fiancé and that he is also in Auschwitz. Turning the screws, she offers Tadeusz (Rafael Laurindo) the chance to see Marta, which he refuses; then she taunts Marta with having a lover who doesn’t want to see her. Like Tadeusz, Marta will not be manipulated, replying only that he must have good reasons for his decision.

On the ship.at first Lisa had claimed to have befriended the prisoners, then she defended herself with meretricious arguments, saying she only did what she had to, following orders out of duty. For a while she and Walter think they can carry on as usual but gradually she becomes more and more distraught and the difference between the ship and the camp more confused until, when Tadeusz defies, her she is left utterly broken and bewildered, crying, “they are blind with hate”.

There are many such striking moments in the opera but undoubtedly the most amazing comes during what at first seems a minor sub-plot. The Kapo of the camp(Jackson Allen) has arranged a musical evening and ordered Tadeusz, a musician,to play the Kapo’s favourite waltz, a schmaltzy affair which the audience has heard before. Will he defy the Kapo and not play? One of the officers (Yuhui Wang) orders him to play for the Kapo as he would play for God. Tadeusz faces the audience for a moment violin in hand and then turns towards the Kapo – and begins to play Bach’s Chaconne, one of the most profound pieces of German music ever written.

The production was an extraordinary accomplishment. Irem Ince, Taryn Plater and Rafael Laurindo sang with an emotional intensity which was never mawkish. The smaller parts were equally memorable. Katja’s unaccompanied solo (Andrea Wylie), Yvette’s (Maya Goell) limpid, dropping lines, Branka’s (Ziara Greene) prayers. The chorus of prisoners added another layer of unrelenting grimness. Added to this, the text for each character was in her national language, which must have added another layer of difficulty yet appeared easily accomplished.

Adding power to the performances were Alessia Carpoca’s hyper-realistic set, Jeremy Baxter’s lighting and Parvin Mirhady’s historically accurate costumes which contrasted very effectively with the abstract and ever-changing nature of the music. Nancy Hermiston’s direction was clear and to the point.

The Vancouver Opera Orchestra was outstanding. The subtleties in the music, the recurrence of the themes each time a little different and more meaningful, the light touch with the trite dance music, the hints of folk song gone monstrously awry, all were exquisitely accomplished. David Agler drew a sweeping, committed, desperately alive performance from his orchestra and haunting beauty from his singers.

A memorable opera, a daring performance, bravi all round.

© 2020 Elizabeth Paterson