The Passenger

English National Opera   (until 25 October)

Michelle Breedt as former SS guard Liese in The Passenger at the Coliseum. Photograph: Tristram Kenton ©The Guardian

Yes it is shocking to set an opera in Auschwitz. It shouldn’t work. But it does. David Pountney’s startling production of Mieczylaw Weinberg’s 1968 The Passenger breaks new ground. The drama is based on Zofia Posmysz’s semi-autobiographical novel.

Pountney splits the stage to mirror the double narrative. The top level is a cruise ship leaving Europe for South America. On board is Annaliese Franz, an Auschwitz guard. The lower level is the hell of Auschwitz. Crossing from Auschwitz to the liner is Marta, a survivor whose presence forces Marta to confess her brutal past to her husband.

The Passenger is a revenge story and the Auschwitz scenes are presented with a rawness and an authenticity that draws the spectator into the moral issues of the situation. Weinberg’s music is reminiscent of Shostakovitch but there are also extraordinary breaks in the score where a jazz melody, a Russian song or a wild violin fractures the musical synthesis which is a creative addition.

The epic weight of the story and its amazingly theatrical staging is executed by a company with a European passion so that, even though the lyrics are in English, it does not jar. This is a piercing work which is a major achievement as drama, opera and modern history. It would be unfair to pick out any single singer as Pountney has developed an extraordinary ensemble of singers and musicians.

I loved the integrity and intelligence of this production and its lack of sentimentality. The last words of Posmysz’s memorial is Never Forgive. An unforgettable end to an unforgettable opera.

Julia Pascal