So the Wendy Dawn Thompson Fan Club (Blackheath Chapter) were out in force last night, Me and A, M and D (separately, we thought they were going a different night and bumped into them in the bar). I have to admit I would not have gone to The Passenger if WDT (Vlasta) hadn’t been in it, and she must have had at least 10 lines!
I suppose my enjoyment of Opera is in its extremes of silliness even when being tragic, it needs to be over the top; I like to have a good wallow, and this wasn’t wallowing material.
I was reminded of my Dad saying that what makes a good musical is the book, no doubt quoting someone, but I forget who; and the problem with this opera is that the story isn’t quite strong enough to carry an opera, and the way the opera is constructed weakens it further.
We start on an ocean liner headed for Brazil. Everything and everyone is white, cold, functional, emotionally distant: Leise (Michelle Breedt), particularly, is distant with her husband Walter (Kim Begley), off on a posting as German ambassador to Brazil. Her repetitive Yes, darling, telegraphing her discomfort. And there’s the problem already, only a few minutes in. She’s already in a state, before she sees the mysterious passenger. So any dramatic punch, any disintegration of their relationship as a result of her uncovered deceit, is undermined. I was deeply unhappy with the dumb-crambo (It can’t be credited as mime) when there were no words for Breedt to sing but the music continued – waving arms and opening and shutting the mouth ain’t acting, and there was some very odd slo-mo walking at times.) And the ship-board stuff goes on and on, and goes nowhere and adds nothing. A bold director would have taken the scissors to this – we could have lost all but about 15 minutes without any detriment to the plot or the music.
There is so little light that the shade is just grey mist, it can’t be dark because there’s no contrast, no relief. Several reviews have made much of the setting of the back story in Auschwitz, some thinking it’s not an appropriate topic for an opera. I’m reserving judgement on that; but in this instance, it didn’t work.
The set is magnificent, clever, almost witty (I loved the snick the self-propelling hand rail on the ship makes as it connects.) – but it ovewhelms the action, I was distracted (though enchanted) by the engineering.
The score is eloquent, and played with conviction, although it is a bit heard-it-before hand-me-down Britten-Gershwin-late 50’s dissonance. (Full marks however for the ‘migraine’ music of xylophonesque clanging – that is exactly what a migraine is like.) The male chorus perched above the action like dispassionate observers do stirling work musically, but have some seriously trite commentary (a translation issue??).
I found the mixture of speech and song annoying, the music behind a lot of the conversation largely redundant, adding nothing to the emotional colour or our understanding of the characters, and I detest ‘musical speaking’ (there’s probably a word for it) ponderous, well-rounded, exquisitely projected, but utterly false. Give me Handel recitative any day!
A recounted a story she heard on the radio – one of Churchill’s daughter’s telling of her father weeping over the death of friend in the presence of Stalin, and Stalin saying, (roughly) yes, it’s personal when it is one and known, against the statistics of thousands unknown.
The enormity of the holocaust requires a conduit, a someone we can relate to, and in The Passenger, this is Marta (Giselle Allen), the Polish prisoner Leise is desperate to break. But we don’t get to know Marta until the second half. Until then the prisoners are the thousands unknown. The only moment of connection in the first half is a woman naming her dead children, keeping them alive by speaking their names.
I found it enormously frustrating, I wanted to like this work, I wanted to engage with the characters, and I couldn’t. I think I was not alone, the queue in the ladies in the interval was silent and gloomy … I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that before!
The second half perked up a bit, (I know that’s the wrong word, but it’s how it felt – at last!) as we finally got some kind of plot line, and a modicum of tension. The relationships between Marta and her small group of friends are sketched in just enough, and are the highlight of the production. We are introduced to Tadeusz (Leigh Melrose), her fiance and the tool Liese uses to torment Marta. Breedt really goes for it in this section, and Allen and Melrose give as good as they get.
The evening never lifted itself beyond the barely two-dimensional, everyone was trying very hard, but the source material and the direction just wasn’t strong enough.
Copyright Cherry Potts 2011