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Lyric Gives Weinberg’s The Passenger Its First Chicago Performances

3/2/2015, 8:56 p.m.
Miecyzslaw Weinberg’s Holocaust opera, The Passenger, which Lyric gave its first Chicago performance Tuesday night,was a mesmerizing event, one of ...

Because of a shoe, Weinberg came to be one of the big three FSU composers after Shostakovich, his mentor and lifelong friend, and Prokofiev. The young co mposer and his sister were fleeing ahead of the Nazis. Her shoe was painful and she went home to change it; she was captured and, with the rest of the family, was exterminated. Weinberg continued East on his own and eventually arrived in Moscow, where he stayed. From the age of 10 he had been helping his father–a violinist, composer, conductor, director and producer –at one of Warsaw’s largest Yiddish theaters (his mother was an actress). His 60+ movie scores and cartoon music as well his enormous classical output provided him the myriad tools to construct this masterpiece among his operas. There is, of course, the influence of Shostakovich (reminiscent of Haydn and Mozart) as well as contemporary sounds including jazz, sarcastic reworking of popular songs and Mahlerian orchestrations. Tonal and atonal lines, chimes, percussion, and misty evocations are part of the arsenal he used to create this layered universe.

Johan Engels set design has some of the emotion of a Mark Rothko painting. The top level is white: sterile, pristine, clean lines, passengers and crew all dressed in white; lighting tends to brightness. The bottom level is the camp, brown (not black), dirty, messy; lighting is subdued. In between them moves a layer of male, Greek-like chorus, dark suited. At one point a transport arrives, full of women from vari-ous countries. They speak in their native languages: Russian, German, Polish, French, Yiddish, Czech–thank goodness for English titles.

Librettist Alexander Medvedev died before the first performance (1968), a foreshadowing, perhaps, of the opera’s being suppressed. It was not performed until 2010 at the Bregenz Festival (Austria). The Passenger has been a long time labour of love for David Pountney, starting even before Bregenz. There is not enough space to give him all the kudos he deserves.