Tales of starving Bohemians and Druid priestesses may leave some modern audiences unmoved, but Florida Grand Opera's shattering production of "The Passenger" is proof why opera exists and what it can be.
To drink in the infinitely lovely music, lyrical yet poetic words, deft performances and imaginative staging in service of something with recognizable relevance, to see it going beyond timeless verities of love and tragedy — all of that will rewrite your understanding of what Puccini and Verdi were trying to accomplish for their contemporary audiences.
Certainly, it helps immeasurably that this story of Holocaust horrors resurfacing to haunt the guilty remains ingrained in our modern zeitgeist. But Mieczyslaw Weinberg's score and Alexander Medvedev's libretto based on Zofia Posmysz's novel dig far deeper into the complex human psyche than some heartless American sailor abandoning a naive Japanese girl. This production underscores humanity's strength to live as fully as possible in spite of the most horrendous nightmare in which cruel and capricious death is possible, even probable at any second.
Weinberg, a Polish émigré in Russia, wrote the opera in about 1968, but the subject matter did not fit the Soviet government's prejudices, and Weinberg died without ever seeing it performed. It languished until 2010, when the Bregenz Festival in Austria spent millions of dollars on a production directed by David Pountney featuring a massive two-tiered set designed and lit by Johan Engels. The reaction was electric, and the work has been mounted around the world.
This edition has the same director, Engels' monumental set and lighting, and a cast of principal singers who have appeared in previous productions. But several performers, including a huge chorus and a large orchestra under Steven Mercurio's baton are local or FGO returnees.
The plot opens in the early 1960s as Liese (Daveda Karanas) is sailing with her diplomat husband, Walter (David Danholt), to Brazil, where he will serve in the German embassy. She is unnerved when she spots a silent ghostly woman in a heavy, caul-like veil roaming the decks.
Liese admits her secret to Walter: She was an overseer in Auschwitz in her youth, and she is convinced this woman, Marta, was a prisoner who she thought was dead. She is certain this woman will recognize and expose her.
The action flashes back to the camp, where Liese is intrigued by the indomitable but vulnerable prisoner Marta (Adrienn Miksch), who compassionately nurtures her fellow inmates, trying to maintain their humanity despite the likelihood of execution. Liese tells Walter that she was just following orders and committed no heinous acts. But her actions in the flashbacks toward Marta are far more complicated, especially when she discovers that Marta's fiancé, Tadeusz (John Moore), who was arrested at the same time, has accidentally been reunited with Marta. Tragedies within tragedies occur, but the rationalizing Liese never acknowledges her responsibility in them, even at the final curtain.
Part of the production's power is the audience is inserted in the same three-dimensional space with living human beings. Unlike once-removed black-and-white photos, this theatrically created vision is inescapably "real." The vision of tortured people in grimy, striped dresses with kerchiefs barely covering shaved heads, trudging like cattle to a lineup, is devastating. But balancing it out is the procession of breath-stopping, plaintive passages in which the women sing of what they will do when they are freed to imagining dignified ways to die.
Engels' masterfully melds the set and lights. The top half is the passenger ship in blinding, pure white as if in heaven. Below it, always threatening to erupt is the Stygian darkness of the concentration camp, with its barracks and other set pieces rolling in on train tracks like cattle cars.
The principals have some of the finest expressive voices to grace FGO's stage, and the orchestra under Mercurio's energetic leadership is sublime. This chilling and ennobling affirmation of opera as a vibrant, valid art form is the don't-miss event of this and several other seasons at FGO.
The Passenger will be performed 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 5, and 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, April 8-9, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. Tickets cost $19-$175. Call 800-741-1010 or go to FGO.org.