Is it possible to write a great opera, or a great work of art of any kind, about Auschwitz? One thing is clear: it would have to be truly great. The very idea of a fairly good work, or for that matter a fairly bad one, with such a subject is absurd. And not only absurd, but also revolting. Take Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader, which was published to much acclaim 14 years ago, but which was soon seen to be a meretricious concoction by discerning readers, just on account of its attempting to illuminate the Holocaust by relating it to subsequent events and ‘relationships’.

The most moving and powerful writing on the subject is Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, and that is factual and baldly so. It is understandable that those who endured the Holocaust and survived should spend the rest of their lives remembering it and insisting that no one forget that it happened. That is what Levi did, and what the great movie Shoah does. But art? What could that add to our feelings or our understanding? Or should it, could it, tell us what our feelings and understanding should be?

Approaching The Passenger by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, then, I admit that I was prejudiced against it. It is an adaptation from the novel Pasazerka by Zofia Posmysz, herself a survivor of Auschwitz. Weinberg was a Polish Jew who escaped from Poland to the Soviet Union when Hitler invaded in 1939. He wrote seven operas, of which this was the first, and was greatly influenced and admired by Shostakovich. Earlier this year Opera North staged, brilliantly, The Portrait, but I was not convinced that it dealt adequately with its theme, the nature of artistic integrity.

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Clearly, nothing could test that subject more severely than an opera in which a Holocaust survivor encounters, 15 years after emerging from Auschwitz, one of her SS guards, on a liner sailing to Brazil. First we get the ex-guard and her husband, a German diplomat about to take up his appointment. His wife’s past would do his career no good, so they both have reason to be frightened — and it is only now that Liese his wife tells him all about herself.

This early 1960s story alternates with scenes in the camp. The stage is divided, vertically, into the liner above and the prisoners’ bunks beneath, a vivid enough rendering of that hell. We learn that Liese has realised, in the camp, that Marta, the passenger she is later appalled to recognise, is someone who can help her control the other prisoners. Marta’s fiancé Tadeusz, a gifted violinist, is another inmate. Painful events ensue, of a kind that must have been commonplace — but which it is the opera’s job to render as powerfully as it can, and the opera ends with Marta insisting that the suffering of all the victims should not be forgotten.

I think it is safe to say that, in the most general way, the horror of Auschwitz is not and won’t be forgotten; there are not only still some survivors reminding us of it, but also books, fictional or factual, movies, memorials. But is there anything we can learn, as opposed to recalling? If there is, I haven’t yet been shown what it is.

The Passenger — which received its first staging last year at Bregenz, that production now brought to the Coliseum — is flawlessly directed by David Pountney, the composer’s leading advocate, and extremely well conducted, played, acted and sung. The two female leads, Michelle Breedt as Liese and Giselle Allen as Marta, are especially vivid. But the work itself: Act I, at 75 minutes, drags painfully, with a massive amount of prosaic dialogue delivered at dictation speed and accompanied only by pizzicati. There are fanfares out of Britten’s War Requiem, itself already a second-hand and second-rate work. And Shostakovich obtrudes from time to time. Those things wouldn’t matter, but in a work of this kind above all one needs an authentic individual voice.

Act II, at the same length, is musically more eventful and even, sometimes, inventive. But the relationship between music, action and words remains vague, and the most effective moment, musically and dramatically, is near the end when Tadeusz is ordered to play a waltz for the entertainment of the prisoners and officers, and instead launches into Bach’s great D minor Chaconne, which after a few bars is taken up and twisted by the full orchestra. The violin is smashed, its player taken away to be executed. Beauty, consolation, order are brutally destroyed. It is a stunning coup de théâtre, but how many viewings of The Passenger would it work for?

The opera as a whole struck me as being like a middlebrow movie, though they are usually much more tightly constructed. One or two viewings, but then there would be nothing to penetrate, nothing more even to reflect on. And that is certainly not the lesson anything about the Holocaust should teach. 

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated