Richard and I saw this opera at the Armory on Saturday 7/12, a Houston Opera production that Lincoln Center brought to New York. The opera was written in 1968, with a score by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a libretto by Alexander Medvedev, based on the novel by Zofia Posmysz. The opera opens on an ocean liner. Liese, a German woman in her forties, is moving to Brazil with her husband, he’s a diplomat. She’s on deck and sees a woman who looks eerily familiar: it turns out Liese was a guard in Auschwitz fifteen years before, and the other woman could be Marta, an inmate in the camp. This leads to Liese telling her husband the truth about her past.
The opera was originally written in a number of languages, but has been translated into English, with supertitles. The music is fantastic: shades of Shostakovich (who was a close friend of Weinberg), Britten, Berg. Masterful writing for the orchestra and the voices, a sure sense of pacing. The story never became labored or heavy-handed or (God forbid) mawkish, and that was because of the score, which kept a cool eye on the intense subject matter.
There was an article in Opera News years ago, talking about new operas - - the writer said that many new operas feel like plays set to music, or movies where the dialogue is sung. An opera, the writer said, must exist as a musical form first and foremost. The story has to be told through the music, the music has to have center stage over all other elements. This opera is a complete success in that regard. The composer’s greatest success is in creating different music for the different settings: the music for Liese and her husband is tense and skittish, the music for the women in the camp is sorrowful and noble. But all of it works together seamlessly.
A few musical highlights: there’s a creepy moment in the first act when we first see Liese in her Auschwitz uniform. She walks onstage and the three male guards flirt with her - - the music has a charming German lilt to it, like a Ländler - - like the folk dance that Maria and Captain von Trapp do in *The Sound of Music*. It gave me chills, in this context.
Marta has an aria in the second act that would have stopped the show, if the composer had allowed the show to be stopped - - but he was smart enough to know that the opera would have more momentum without a break for applause. Gorgeous writing for the voice, and soprano Melody Moore sang like a dream.
Marta is shown in two guises: on the cruise ship in a white trenchcoat with a white veil not just over her face but over her whole head - - and in the camp, wearing a burlap dress, her hair in a crew cut. The opera ends with Marta wearing a twinset and tweed skirt, with chin-length hair. It’s not clear where she is, but it’s sometime after the interaction with Liese on the ship. Her closing aria was about Marta not forgetting her time in the camp, and remembering the other inmates.
Michelle Breedt played Liese, and she sang with great conviction. I was about to wish that she could have worked a little softness, a note of regret, into her performance, but that’s not how the character is written. At one point she says to her husband that she doesn’t understand why Marta and the other inmates hated her so much, when she was always to kind to them. This woman is seriously delusional.
The set is on two levels, with the cruise ship in crisp white on the upper level and grimy hideous Auschwitz on the ground floor. A few times Liese walked down a stairway from the ship to the camp, that was chilling. The performance was greatly enhanced by its setting, the enormous Armory Drill Hall, big as a city block. It’s a monumental story and it deserved a monumental environment.