Janáček’s last opera, From the House of the Dead, is a curious piece. It sets certain episodes from Dostoevsky’s account of his life in prison into a collage of stories that doesn’t have a straightforward narrative arc at all. It’s quite brutal, as one might expect, and very male dominated. Few characters stand out as individuals and so the piece becomes very much an exercise in ensemble musical theatre. The music is unusual too. In Pierre Boulez’ words it is “primitive”. Certain phrases are repeated over and over with minimal development to create a sort of “expressionist minimalism”. It’s extremely interesting to listen to and a great sonic match for the brutal and repetitive nature of prison camp life.
The production recorded at Aix en Provence in 2007 marked the first time Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez had worked together since their seminal Bayreuth Ring. The staging has something in common with that production. The sets are stark and very high and largely devoid of colour. The costumes are equally drab. What brings it to life is extremely well directed and committed acting from all concerned. It is very much a collective production with few notable individual contributions except perhaps Olaf Bär as the aristocrat Gorjančikov and Eric Stoklossa as the young Aljeja. That said, the collective effort, combined with that of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Arnold Schoenberg Choir is very fine and Pierre Boulez really does extract full weight from this unusual score.
Production for video is a bit mixed. Stéphane Metge directs the cameras and it’s rather a conventional effort with lots of close-ups. One feels that some of Chéreau’s vision is being lost though it’s by no means the worst video directing on disk. The picture is OK but struggles a bit with the darker scenes. Sound is average. The DTS track appears to have been created from stereo using DGG’s proprietary process (which seems odd for a 2007 recording). In any event, there’s little to choose between the stereo and surround tracks. Subtitle options are English, German, French and Spanish.
Where this disk does shine is in its bonus materials and documentation. There are 48 minutes of rehearsal and interview footage on the disk plus insightful essays by both Boulez and Chéreau in the booklet. More disks should have such riches.