From the House of the Dead
Opera Three Acts
Music by Leoš Janáček
Text (Czech) the composer, based on Dostoevsky’s novel
World Premiere: Brno, National Theater, April 12, 1930
U.S. Premiere: NET Television, December 3, 1969
Metropolitan Opera Premiere: November 12, 2009
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Filka Morozov: Stefan Margita
Skuratov: Kurt Streit
Shapkin: Peter Hoare
Shishkov: Peter Mattei
Gorianchikov: Willard White
Dostoevsky is hardly summer reading for the Hamptons. And so it’s only natural that New York’s Met programmed its first ever production of Leos Janacek’s 3- act i hour 31 minute without a break based on Dostoevksy FROM THE HOUSE OF ThE DEAD ( 1927-28 ) — after his breakthrough 1860 novel THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD — for its fall/winter season when we’re expected to look inside ourselves and take stock. The Czech composer’s last opera — he wrrote 10 — remained incomplete at his death in 1928 . His highly personal raw-sounding orchestration was sweetened by O.Chlubna and B. Bakala , much as Rimsky straightened out the scoring of BORIS GODUNOV( 1868-69, rev. 1871-72; 1873.) by Mussorgsky, whose acute attention to Russian speech rhythms influenced Janacek’s setting of Czech, in his libretto from Dostoevsky. But the Met used the critical edition by Janacek’s first and foremost advocate in the West, Sir Charles Mackerras, and John Tyrell. which preserves the composer’s evocation of a world every bit as dreamlike as Debussy’s PELLEAS ET MELISANDE ( 1893 -95, 1901-02 ) A critic once described Debussy’s work as being ” music of the nerves” ‘and you could say the same thing about Janacek’s music which apparently flew out of him at breakneck speed. And even in its most quiet moments it sounds ready to burn up the house. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable artist for this house, other than French actor-film- theatre director Patrice Chereau, who made his much anticipated US debut here, and clearly personalized its extreme subject matter — it’s set in a Siberian prison camp where Dostoevsky did time for 4 years for what the powers that be deemed crimes — even thought crimes — against the state.
Chereau has always been interested in extreme states. His major film work, from his best known LA REINE MARGOT ( 1994 ), to most American critics took it as porn INTIMACY ( 2001 ), to the story of a young kid getting mixed up with dangerous gay sex, and more, in L’ HOMME BLESSE (1983 ) — Chereau happens to be gay — to GABRIELLE ( 2005 ) with its knockdown drag-out performances by Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert , to his to be released in France December 2009 PERSECUTION — centers on people falling apart bigtime, and manners offer scant refuge for the beleagured M / Mme Hervey in GABRIELLE. Janacek’s to the bone music in FROM THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD gives his players no place to hide, and Chereau had his set designer Richard Peduzzi constuct his prison as a huge grey concrete walled box, which lighting designer Bertrand Couderc startled with color. Chereau’s frequent film costume designer Caroline de Vivaise’s near monochrme but never dull clothes matched Dostoevsky’s conception of his story as 1 character in a spotlight, and then another one, to a tee. One’s attention,, as in Brecht, was distributed over the entire playihg field of the stage so that no single figure obstructed one’s view of another, though Chereau’s frequent practice of “shooting ” everything close in — which works in film — tended to evaporate in the huge spaces of the Met’s stage. But maybe — all disclaimers aside — Janacek and Chereau weren’t gunning for that, but for throwing out what the Buddhist’s call self-cherishing, which means the tried and true Western idea of identifying with the sorrows and joys of a single person onstage.
Chereau’s direction operates in a world where Beckett’s grim comedies are flat out givens, and Janacek’s sarcastic rhythms, skewed dances, wind roulades, and harmonic inside jokes — a pungent tritone at ” What do I want ? ” — are part and parcel of the tolal mis en scene ( itals ) , which factors in the group as a contrast to or fellow traveller with the whole. FROM THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD is an ensemble piece for sure, and every member of the cast made that point again and again. No star shone above the other, though Swedish baritone Peter Mattei’s monolog as the prisoner Shishkov had the almost full house in the palm of his hand, and Shishkov’s Act 3 monolog, though reasonably long, was hardly as well — endless — as Konig Marke’s in Wagner’s TRISTAN UND ISOLDE ( 1857-9 ), which was written around the same time as Dostoevksy’s novel, and Janacek’s version is, as always with this composer, a miracle of concision.
I’t’s hard to see how the musical realization could have been bettered. The Met orchestra is always pro, or more so, and the sounds they produced here brought Janacek’s score to vivid pulsing life. Outgoing LA Phil head Esa – Pekka Salonen — never quite the publitcy darling that his hardly wet behind the ears successor Gustavo Dudamel has been — conducted with an incisive even electric beat, and his tempos seem to have been even more on the money propulsive than on his only previous Met performance opening night.
This was a thrilling evening in the theatre, though Glass’ 2005 opera from J.M. Coetzee’s Kafkaesque novel WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, is a beter piece overall, despite or because of its singleminded focus on one major character — the Magistrate — and his joys and concomittant sorrows. Glass’ score sounded far more hand in glove than Janacek’s– some of it was his posthumously performed Violin Concerto — which was either an exultant contrast to Dostoevsky’s grim reportage, or a cyncical and/ or hopeful / “romantic” send-up of it.