English National Opera
We are on a glitzy ocean liner in the early 1960s. Walter, a German diplomat, and his wife Liese are setting off to Brazil. Suddenly she is thrown into panic by the presence of a mysterious veiled woman. Could it really be Marta, a Polish prisoner in Auschwitz who refused to bow to her will as overseer? Could she now have returned to haunt Liese and post-war West Germany's fragile complacency?
And with that, the set shifts to reveal the nightmare of the camp below.
Miecyslaw Weinberg was a Polish Jew whose family was killed in the camps but who went on to become a leading Soviet composer, a friend and disciple of Shostakovich. His extraordinary opera, in repertory at the London Coliseum until 25 October, is based on a 1962 novel by Zofia Posmysz, a Polish woman imprisoned in Auschwitz for three years simply for reading a resistance leaflet. Two years after the war, she happened to hear a German tourist on the Place de la Concorde whose voice sounded exactly like that of her former warder - and wondered what would happen if she ever met her tormentor again.
Posmysz's novel and Weinberg's opera are deeply committed to preserving the memory of the women from every corner of Europe who had once been imprisoned with her. One has been driven mad by the thought of imminent death. A second takes comfort in religion, wants to "adopt" a younger woman as a substitute daughter and is furious when an atheist challenges her faith. A third tries to teach her fellow inmates French, starting with vivre, the verb "to live". Others are desperately nostalgic for the countries they have left behind, dream of what it would be like to taste freedom again and reflect on why they feel such an intense desire to stay alive.
These could have become stock types, but Weinberg has an uncanny ability to find different musical idioms to bring each of them back to life as individuals, creating a whole world of female prisoners.
Equally striking is the treatment of Liese. Although she is a monster - cruel, self-pitying and myopic enough to be outraged that she was so hated in the camp - she is also poignantly and recognisably human. Posmysz's book attracted considerable controversy at the time precisely for its determination to "show a person who is neither simply bad nor simply good. Thinking in black and white is simply thinking and has nothing to do with human reality."
The opera, composed in 1967-68, has a similar moral complexity, which may be one of the reasons why it was never performed in the USSR: indeed, it made its stage debut only last year, in Austria. Brilliantly performed, its British premiere is a major event.