Tuesday, April 06, 2010

From the House of the Dead on DVD

Last fall, I was greatly disappointed not to be able to go to the Metropolitan Opera to take in the Chereau production, from Aix-en-Provence, of Janacek's From the House of the Dead. From everything I've read about the performances, which were conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the run was one of the big hits of the season, and a great artistic triumph for all involved. I listened to the radio broadcast a few weeks ago and loved the music - not a surprise, as I'm a big fan of Janacek, such a great and idiosyncratic composer. But without a libretto in front of me, even after reading the synopsis, I had no idea what was actually going on.

Patrick rescued me, lending me the DVD of the original production. I'm home sick with a cold and was able to watch it yesterday. I must say that it is the longest 100 minute opera I have ever seen, and I'm not sure why that was - the intensity of the music, the vignette-oriented narrative? I don't mean that in a bad way, either; the opera just seems larger and longer than it actually is.

Janacek extracted the libretto himself from Dostaevsky's "The House of the Dead." The opera is very much a slice of life, a glimpse into the world of the prison, rather than recounting specific story about a specific group of people. There isn't the type of narrative arc you find in a Verdi or Wagner or Puccini opera. While some of the vignettes resolve at the end of the opera - the wounded eagle of Act I is released to freedom, a character's true identity is revealed as he dies, a prisoner leaves the prison - you also know that life in the prison will go on in much the way we've seen it.

And, like other Janacek operas, while there are long soliloquies that could theoretically be excerpted, and while they have quite brilliant dramatic pacing, they're not arias in the conventional sense. the opera is extremely conversational, very much about minute to minute interactions at the same time that there isn't a big narrative arc. The cast is quite large, which, besides the bleakness of the libretto, is surely the major reason this great masterpiece is so rarely performed.

The physical production is simple and stark, using a modified unit set representing the gray concrete walls of the prison. For one scene, seats on risers are added; for another, bunk beds. The prisoners are dressed in comparatively modern motley; not rags, not 19th century clothing but not uniforms, either. More like, the clothes on their backs when they were arrested.

"From the House of the Dead" is very much an ensemble piece, with many characters on stage at all times. Chereau's direction is detailed and always apropos without seeming too busy - at least as filmed by Stephan Metge, who does a brilliant and highly cinematic job of capturing the energy and detail. His filming is far superior to anything I've seen come out of the Met high-def broadcasts, for contrast. I wish they'd just put him in charge.

I have previously seen only two of the singers who were in the Aix-en-Provence production, the tenors John Mark Ainsley and Stefan Margita. I liked Ainsley's most recent SFO appearance, a decade ago in Semele, just fine, but his Skuratov is really towering by comparison. Margita's Loge stole the show in the 2008 SF Rheingold, a great portrayal, and his Luka/Filka is in that class. You can't keep your eyes off him when he's front and center.

New to me and especially memorable in a great cast were Gerd Grochowsky as Siskov and Eric Stoklossa as Aljeja.

Oh, and - as far as I can tell, from a position of having heard the opera once, Boulez and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra are also great.


doug said...

I saw only the video, too. I was totally unfamiliar with the opera and found it a mesmerizing, moving, and remarkable experience.

Henry Holland said...

I've only seen this once in the theater (City Opera, early 90's) and I thought it was kind of boring, just a string of vignettes and not a coherent or forward-moving narrative, but this performance has gotten raves, so I'll definitely try and check it out.

Lisa, where's your reviews of the stuff you saw in NYC recently you promised? :-)

Lisa Hirsch said...

Ooops. :)

I can imagine House of the Dead being done badly, it's true, but this is as good as it gets.