Monday, September 24, 2012

Janáček: Z Mrtvého Domu (From the House of the Dead) – You Need to See this Opera

From the House of the Dead is a dark opera—dark music, dark story, dark set—and a powerful drama. It’s hard to make it sound like must-see opera, but you really must see it. In this production, the three acts are played without intermission, and the ~100 minutes go by fast.  As expected from Janáček, there isn’t much lyricism nor are there melodies per se. The music is direct and driving, and it enhances every scene and every line of dialog.
This opera is cinematic, presenting a series of scenes and portraits, but with no real plot. Patrice Chéreau’s stage direction (not surprisingly) and the video direction enhance this cinematic feeling—you know you are watching a stage production but there are more views, effects, and unexpected angles than you’d ever see from the audience.

The end of Act 1

This is Regieopera. But not in the sense of a director imposing a whole new idea on an existing work. Chéreau’s Personenregie is awesome. He has given each person on stage a real character to work with. We only get to know a few of them, and many don’t even have names: Short Prisoner, Old Prisoner, Drunk Prisoner, etc. but these people all have individual identities.

Chéreau has created a timeless, universal prison—a setting that makes one think about people all over the world who are rightfully or wrongfully imprisoned and how hopeless and helpless they must feel.  Some of these men committed terrible, violent crimes, and others are here for no apparent reason other than bad luck, or crossing the wrong official. But Chéreau, Boulez, and Janáček inject humanity into these people and their situation.  We are drawn as participants into the drama/non-drama. (One reviewer blurb on the DVD box says it's "so feel you've lived it." And I agree.)

Everything happens and nothing happens. At the beginning, Gorjančikov, a nobleman, is incarcerated and beaten simply for being well off. He befriends Aljeja, a young man who shows him compassion by retrieving his broken eyeglasses; and Gorjančikov teaches Aljeja to read and write. Other than this isolated father/son relationship, the guards and the rest of the inmates show very little personal interest in one another.  The overriding mood is tension; something bad can (and probably will) happen at any second, with little or no provocation.  Various characters share stories of why they are in prison; the men perform two pantomimes for local townsfolk; they argue and fight; time passes.

There is a tiny glimmer of hope at end. As Gorjančiko is released (we don’t know why he was arrested or why he is released), the men also release an eagle (the Czar of the sky!) they’ve nursed to health. But everyone else is left behind, still helpless and hopeless. There’s no happy ending; no real ending at all. Life in prison just keeps going on.

The end of Act 3

This performance is edgy and exciting. Chéreau’s direction is engaging; Boulez and the orchestra move the action forward with a sense of inevitability.  There are no star roles; but this is a strong ensemble of soloists. It’s probably unfair to name only a few, but Olaf Bär (Gorjančikov), Eric Stoklossa (Aljeja), John Mark Ainsley (Skuratov), and Gerd Grochowski (Šiskov) made the strongest impressions on me. 

This opera is so intense, that I actually was relieved to see everyone smiling during the bows at the end. The release of tension helped me transition back to real life.  The chorus is the awesome Arnold Schoenberg Choir, and the members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra were on stage for the bows too, in recognition of the important role they played in this drama.  
I highly recommend watching the five “making of” videos (including the 20-minute orchestral rehearsal) and reading the essays by Boulez and Chéreau in the booklet as preparation for watching the opera. It gave me a good idea of what to expect.
You need to see this opera; not just for the music, and not just for the drama, but for the humanity, too. I keep finding myself drawn back to it. It’s not fun, it’s not cheerful; but it’s a powerful, gripping, human drama, with music to match.

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