Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, after Dostoevsky, Patrice Chéreau, director, at the Metropolitan Opera

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Jon Morris, Erwin E.A. Thomas (with eagle), Peter Straka as The Tall Prisoner, and Vladimir Chmelo as The Short Prisoner. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Jon Morris, Erwin E.A. Thomas (with eagle), Peter Straka as The Tall Prisoner, and Vladimir Chmelo as The Short Prisoner. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Metropolitan Opera House
November 24, 2009

From the House of the Dead

Filka Morozov/Kuzmich – Stefan Margita
Skuratov – Kurt Streit
Shapkin – Peter Hoare
Shishkov – Peter Mattei
Gorianchikov – Willard White
Alyeya – Eric Stoklossa
Tall Prisoner – Peter Straka
Short Prisoner – Vladimir Chmelo
Prison Commandant – Vladimir Ognovenko
Old Prisoner – Heinz Zednik
Chekunov – Jeffrey Wells
Drunken Prisoner – Adam Klein
Blacksmith – Richard Bernstein
Priest – John Cheek
Young Prisoner – Scott Scully
Prostitute – Kelly Cae Hogan
Prisoner/Don Juan – Ales Jenis
Prisoner/Kedril – Marian Pavlovic
Cherevin – Andreas Conrad

Actors: Wayne Brusseau, Jeff Burchfield, Bob Diamond, Marty Keiser, Peter John Lester, Michael Lewis, Collin McGee, Deric McNish, Michael Melkovic, Jon Morris, Vernon Morris, Bjørn Pederson, Jason Quarles, Peter Richards, Isaac Scranton, Damiyr Shuford, Jason Sofge, Carlton Tanis, Erwin E.A. Thomas, Steve Trzaska

Javier Diaz – Percussionist

Conductor – Esa-Pekka Salonen
Production – Patrice Chéreau
Associate Director – Thierry Thieû Niang
Set Designer – Richard Peduzzi
Costume Designer – Caroline de Vivaise
Lighting Designer – Bertrand Couderc

The Met program notes are not alone in making much of the quotation from Dostoevsky’s original, which Janáček inscribed above his score: “In every creature, a spark of God.” Holiday commitments kept me from beginning this review for a few days, and, as I approached it, I found a glowing curtain in my memory which gave every indication that what I had experienced a few nights before had been some warm affirmation of human values. At the time, as I gazed at Richard Peduzzi’s concrete walls and observed the brutality of the prisoners’ treatment and of the behavior they had been reduced to, this affirmative feeling was far in the distance, not closer than the memories they clung to, which inevitably flowed into the crimes that brought them into the prison. Had Chéreau and his associates played a subtle trick on me? Or was it the opera itself? Janáček fully knew what he had taken on in setting Dostoesvsky’s semi-journalistic novel, based on his own four years in a Siberian prison camp. The composer found his work hard going. In the larger context of his quotation, found on a slip of paper in his clothes after his death, he explains it:

Why do I go into the dark, frozen cells of criminals with the poet of Crime and Punishment? Into the minds of criminals and there I find a spark of God. You will not wipe away the crimes from their brow, but equally you will not extinguish the spark of God. Into what depths it leads—how much truth there is in his work! See how the old man slides down from the oven, shuffles to the corpse, makes the sign of the cross over it, and with a rusty voice sobs the words: ‘A mother gave birth even to him!’ Those are the bright places in the house of the dead.

If we concentrate on the music itself, we hear a tonal landscape as full of variety of feeling and experience as a Mahler symphony, one teeming with nostalgia, love, passion, rage, remorse and more. As it often is with Mahler, the experience of these emotions lies in the memory. In the present the prisoners have only the routine of prison life and its harshness. Janáček’s From the House of the Dead is all about this double life, which amounts to a good deal less than a single life in freedom.

And Janáček accomplished this without any of Mahler’s Romantic etiquette, already growing stale as he wrote his symphonies. Powerful tutti only occasionally intrude on an endlessly varied palette of strange combinations of instruments, occasionally suggesting chamber music or brass bands or café orchestras, but often nothing more than jarring combinations of alien sounds from uncomfortable parts of the instruments’ registers. He occasionally mimicks conventional genres and gestures, but before a bar has passed, he introduces an unsettling surprise, or contradiction. Hence both Janáček’s music and his theatre are constantly unstable, always undercutting themselves with something between a suggestion and a bald statement of their opposite, in harmony only with the schizoid character of prison life. Both the sonic details and and their dramatic sense were fully conveyed by Esa-Pekka Salonen’s protean reading of the score—now biting and harsh, now sweet and lyrical, although not without its due of bitter dissonance, sometimes chillingly strange, like the interludes for chains and metal objects.

When the composer died, leaving the score behind in an unusual, hard to read state, it was thought to be unfinished and two of his pupils, Břetislav Bakala and Osvald Chlubna, in preparing it for its posthumus 1930 premiere in Brno, did their best to assimilate it to convention through doubling, expansion of string support, and rhythmic alterations. The timbral extremes, which were such a powerful element in Salonen’s reading, were unthinkable at the time, as was Janáček’s bleak ending, in which the prisoners simply go back to their routine after Gorianchikov’s liberation, while his young friend, Alyeya, moans for him. Bakala, Chlubna, and the producer Ota Zitek added an “apotheosis” for the conclusion, including a trite invocation of freedom, shouted repeatedly by the prisoners. The confluence of misery, despair, and human spirit, which so moved the greater part of the Met audiences, was unknown before the 1950’s, when Rafael Kubelik removed some of the revisions, and not fully realized until 1980, when Charles Mackerras and the musicologist John Tyrrell collaborated on a full restoration of what Janáček actually left behind, which resulted in Sir Charles’ indispensible 1981 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. This is the score used in the Chéreau production, as it makes its rounds of major European venues, as well as the Met.

A scene from Act II of Janacek's "From the House of the Dead." Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

A scene from Act II of Janacek's "From the House of the Dead." Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

The enthusiastic response to this brilliant production makes it clear that the opera’s time has come. The Met has served Janáček fairly well over the years, for an American opera house, with productions of Jenufa in the 1970’s and 80’s, and The Makropoulos Case and Kát’a Kabanová in the 1990’s, continuing on into the new century. These productions have all been well received, but the excitement over From the House of the Dead seems to be exceptional. I hope this means that Janáček will become a more frequent guest in the future. It would be a mistake to assume that From the House of the Dead met with universal approval. One or two people walked out early and a larger group tramped out at the end without joining in the warm applause of the majority—always a sign that something interesting is going on.

In her recent interview Vivica Genaux made my hair stand on end by saying that it was common practice for singers to spend more rehearsal time with the stage director than the conductor. Chéreau’s production is extremely complex and depends on perfect timing in movement and perfect coordination of this with the equally complex lighting. This would have taken an impressive amount of work to put together, but the more important singers in this ensemble work were reinforced by a troupe of actors. There was absolutely no sign of insufficient musical preparation. Another of Janáček’s daring gambits was his construction of the opera as a true ensemble piece, with numerous small parts flowing swiftly in an out of the limelight. On top of this, the three monologues in which each act culminates, are first person narratives with a variety of characters, whom the singer must evoke through vocal color and manner. This creates a considerable challenge for the singers, who must make an impression in only a few bars, and the three or so with a bit more ample space must take on multiple roles within their characters.

Peter Mattei as Shishkov and actor Steve Trzaska (in bed on right) in Janacek's "From the House of the Dead." Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera   Taken during the rehearsal on November 5, 2009 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Peter Mattei as Shishkov and actor Steve Trzaska (in bed on right) in Janacek's "From the House of the Dead." Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera Taken during the rehearsal on November 5, 2009 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

While even the smallest parts were depicted with individual color and character, even what we would have to call “medium” parts (small in any other opera), Willard White’s Gorianchikov, Eric Stoklossa’s Alyeya (a part originally written for mezzo-soprano, Janáček’s preference for young males), and the Prison Commandant, sung by Vladimir Ognovenko, all gave memorable, vivid characterizations in the few bars at their disposal. Stefan Margita was the centerpiece of the first act as Luka Kuzmich/Filka Morozov, who in the first and briefest of the monologues, tells how, when he was previously imprisoned for vagrancy, he killed an officer and was flogged for the crime. The more, detailed, rather tender story of Skuratov and his love for the young German washerwoman, Luisa, was most affectingly sung by the Austrian-American tenor Kurt Streit, who as simple a man as Skuratov is, must convey his heartfelt love for the girl, as well as his disinterest in commitment—not to mention the different characters in his narrative and his own confused emotions as he confronts the middle-aged man she was forced to marry. Finally in the third act, after Shapkin’s (Peter Hoare) brilliant vignette about how his ears were pulled by the police, the Swedish baritone Peter Mattei brought off an amazing tour de force in Shishkov’s monologue, the longest and most elaborate, which the character repeatedly delays with demands to his listeners not to rush him in his story. I very much admired Mattei’s Eugene Onegin at Tanglewood in 2008, in which he favored a lightish Italianate timbre, which did justice to the role’s lyrical aspects and his cool conception of the character. His Don Giovanni at the Met last spring was much admired, and Roza Tulyaganova noted the lightness of his voice in this publication. For the obsessive drunkard Shishkov, Mattei adopted a much larger, darker voice as his basis, allowing himself, lighter, thinner timbres, as well as even darker ones for the participants in the circumstances that led up to his murder of his wife. This is a role that encompasses the range of a Wotan or a Wozzeck within twenty minutes, and Mattei succeeded magnificently in it.

This outstanding success both in staging and in musical values was a feat in itself, but it is especially gratifying to see Patrice Chéreau, no longer the naughty Wunderkind of the Bayreuth centenary Ring, emerge as a humanist of such mature empathy and depth. No attempt was made to conceal the complexity of the production, yet the fugue of action created by his very large crew on stage seemed uncontrived, almost natural. The energy and style with which everybody moved was a constant reminder of Dostoevsky’s and Janáček’s guiding thought: “in every creature, a spark of God.” And mercifully there was not a trace of preachiness or of forced contemporary illusion. Chéreau wants us to think of the imprisoned of any time and place. Therefore prisoners in vaguely nineteenth century costumes were mixed with women, visitors who came to see the theatrical entertainments, in Soviet era garb. This only gave me pause, when the ladies walked in with a priest. The prisoners did their plays as the coarsest kind of burlesques, perhaps not exactly what Janáček had in mind (nor Dostoevsky, and certainly not the prisoners he lived with and observed!) but high-spirited in any case, and enough to shake out a few of the cobwebs hiding in the Met’s rafters.

One of the marvellous things about Janáček’s music is its feeling of liberation. While successful Janáček is nothing new at the Met, the production of this spare, profound opera in a seasoned contemporary production seemed a catalyst of the healthy changes taking place in venerable house. Perhaps it was this perception of Janáček as a composer and the effect of his ninety-year-old opera on a present-day institution, as much as its content, that lingered so hopefully with me afterwards.


Eric Stoklossa as Alyeya and Willard White as Alexander Petrovich Gorianchikov in a scene from Act III of Janacek's "From the House of the Dead." Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Eric Stoklossa as Alyeya and Willard White as Alexander Petrovich Gorianchikov in a scene from Act III of Janacek's "From the House of the Dead." Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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