23 October 2011

The Passenger at the ENO

The English National Opera (ENO) features rarely in my cultural calendar because I find most of its repertoire dull and I'd rather hear the words sung in their natural language. A new and unusual opera got me back there.

The Coliseum is a nice quaint venue too. I do prefer modern theatres (Glyndebourne is the obvious example here) but I am getting used to London's Victorian theatres with their rich decoration, waves of boxes and soft red velvet seats.

The lounge areas are reasonable to and I was able to get a Czech Budvar and a chair to sit in while drinking it before the show.

But the beer and the theatre were not what had pulled me there, it was the prospect of an opera tackling the difficult theme of the holocaust. This is not light opera but then I don't really do light opera. What attracts me to opera, and also plays, are words like dark, disturbing and difficult.

The simple premise of the story is that a woman sailing with her husband to start a new life in Brazil things she recognises a former prisoner from Auschwitz from her time as a guard there some fifteen years earlier. This leads her to think back to those days,

This set does this cleverly with the upper layers, in white, representing the cruise ship and the dark lower level representing the camp.

The story starts with the possible encounter on the ship but once the scene is set most of the story happens below and in the past. Not surprisingly some of this is quite harrowing. There is little direct cruelty on show but we do see some of the inmates being taken away and ashes being shovelled out of the furnaces.

Amidst this horror we get a little love story and also some camaraderie amongst the captives that leads to some singing of traditional folk songs and even a birthday celebration.

The story returns to the cruise ship and we get an uncomfortable chorus about never forgiving the Germans for what they have done. That might have been reasonable in 1959 when the original story was written but now it's an uncomfortable message that jars against the progress we have made in Europe over the last sixty six years.

Musically the opera is a little thin. It's only in sections of the second half that we get some memorable singing. Most of the time the music is slight and the singing little more than recitative.

Without the music to focus on our full attention is on the story and while I did not agree with some of the sentiments it is a powerful story that draws you in with awe and horror.

Somehow that is not enough though.

The Passenger is different and it is challenging and it does make for a rewarding night out but it lacks the spark that makes you want to repeat the experience.

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