Offstage (Tosca) or on (Prokofiev’s War and Peace), war exerts a powerful operatic force. Pair it with a love story, as many librettos do, and the clamor of clashing armies plays out in conjoined stakes at once immense and intimate.
In CD releases of two superb war-driven operas, both on the Naxos label, the geopolitical, moral, emotional, and psychological complexities of the 20th century’s two global conflicts are rendered in compellingly dramatic musical terms. Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger, with a libretto by Alexander Medvedev after the Zofia Posmysz novel, reckons with the Nazi atrocities. Kevin Puts’s Silent Night, on a Mark Campbell libretto based on Christian Carion’s Joyeux Nöel screenplay, is set in and around the trenches of World War I.
Though it was completed and scheduled for production in 1968, The Passenger did not receive its premiere, and then only in semi-staged form, until 2006. The first fully staged production, at the Bregenz Festival, followed in 2010.
As this gripping Graz Opera recording certifies, the work’s long neglect is entirely a political matter. Weinberg, who was born in Warsaw and settled in Russia, had composed a work of unworthy “abstract humanism,” according to his adopted country’s censors. Substitute “profound” or “wrenching” for “abstract,” and the thought police would have had it right. The Passenger, plain but definitely not simple, is a masterpiece.
The premise is disarmingly placid. Lisa (a penetrating mezzo Dshamilja Kaiser) and her husband, Walter (the stolid tenor Will Hartmann), are on a ship bound for Brazil in 1960. Their idle time at sea is soon disrupted when Lisa spots and thinks she recognizes a fellow passenger, Marta (soprano Nadja Stefanoff, ethereal but world-weary). In a series of gradual revelations, we learn that Lisa was a guard at Auschwitz and Marta — or so it seems — a Polish captive. Flashbacks to the prison camp deepen the story, with Lisa both indulgent and envious of Marta’s beauty and her romantic relationship with a musician (the charismatic baritone Markus Butter).
In a score reminiscent of Shostakovich (the two were close), Weinberg fashions a dizzying pattern of marches and taunting burlesques, a meandering bassoon and skittering xylophone, achingly spare love duets and fleeting quotations of folk songs and a Bach chaconne. A multivoiced chorus intones darkly over an arching string descant.
The result is a psychological double helix, at once mysterious and moving, as Lisa and Marta’s stories intertwine in past and present time. As the vocal lines diverge and converge over the restlessly incisive score, absorbingly realized under Roland Kluttig’s baton, The Passenger heads for its haunting destination.
“I was a loyal German,” Lisa declares, as a mindless march tune rambles on somewhere in the distance. It’s Marta who gets the last word, in a sublimely understated epilogue. “Do not forgive them, never ever!” she sings to her fellow prisoners. Fittingly, in this deeply affecting and unsettling work, there are no abiding consolations. In The Passenger’s final measures, an unresolved chord fades away to silence.
A very different sort of uneasy calm hovers over Puts’s Silent Night, which received a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. After brief paeans to the “glory of the battle” that marks the beginning of the war, the opera picks out the threads of its multiple storylines. A pregnant French woman rebukes her husband for enlisting. A Scottish soldier persuades his brother — fatefully, as it turns out — to join him. Two lovers, both of them opera singers, are separated after singing in Germany.
Violence quickly takes hold, both in the stage action and Puts’s resourcefully expressive score. Soon enough, stunned by their losses, the various armies retreat to their encampments and trenches. Singing by nationality in French, German, and English — with a smattering of church Latin mixed in — a large cast ventures into a battlefield’s no man’s land on Christmas Eve and agree on a precarious ceasefire.
Puts, represented by the blackly comic chamber opera Elizabeth Cree this past summer at West Edge Opera, ranges more widely and incisively here. The combat scenes play out in tumbling cascades of voices and concussive orchestral furies. A chorus begins in seraphic simplicity, over a repeated arpeggiated sixth chord, then builds to a multivoiced magnificence. A horn solo that opens the second act undergoes a similar transformation, into a poignant threnody for the war dead and the need to bury them.
As The Passenger does, Silent Night draws on multiple musical sources. Reunited, the opera singers Anna (soprano Karen Wolverton) and Nikoluas (tenor Miles Mykkanen), both excellent, sing a Mozartean duet. A harmonica muses wistfully. A Scottish ballad, heard once, is hauntingly reprised at the end.
If Puts’s score sometimes edges into lush sentimentality, the scope and human resonance of the story call for a full musical arsenal. In the opera’s intense second act, the ceasefire collapses. Accusations fly back and forth across the battle lines, in swift volleys of scurrying lyrics. “Shoot the bloody Kraut!” a British major commands.
War, as it will, has its way with its soldiers. But before it does, Silent Night delivers a few last benedictions, notably with news of a child’s birth back home. Puts captures it in plangently lyrical passages.
The Minnesota Opera production, recorded live with Courtney Lewis on the podium, benefits from the presence of an audience. The listener hears their laughter and senses their rapt stillness.
War, as both these admirable works reminds us, can seem distant, remote. even abstract for those not directly involved. With their masterly blends of insight and empathy, The Passenger and Silent Night bring these sprawling calamities into cleareyed, full-hearted focus.