From the House of the Dead

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.

1.arrivalThe 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.

2.rubbishProduction 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.

3.hospitalWhere 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.

4.eagleThis is the only video recording currently available of this work.  It’s very well done and it’s priced very competitively so can be recommended for anyone interested in this rather unusual opera.

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4 thoughts on “From the House of the Dead

  1. I love this performance. It’s a tough opera to sit through, but it’s so effectively staged, directed, sung, and played that I was mesmerized by it. When the trash was dropped from the flies at the end of act 1, I FELT it. It was so oppressive and…well, I don’t know what else, but it was very moving and dramatic.

    In addition to the two singers you mention, I’d single out John Mark Ainsley (Skuratov), and Gerd Grochowski (Šiskov) for chilling and effective performances. Each singer on stage clearly has an individual character. I agree with you about the bonus material, and I think it’s even be worth viewing all of that BEFORE watching the opera. I felt better prepared for the performance and was cued into what to look for.

    In my review, I wrote “everything happens, and nothing happens…[and there’s] no real ending at all. Life in prison just keeps going on.” It’s depressing in a way, but it’s a powerful performance of a powerful opera.

    • I felt that this was one of those operas that would be much, much better experienced live. I needed a more immersive experience than a technically OK but no better DVD could provide.

  2. John I have seen this live twice in 1990 when the NYCO gave what I believe was the first staged US performance and when this production was at the Met with a different cast (Mattei as usual was very powerful as Shiskov–why people were suprised by the intensity of his Amfortas last season I do not know) and Salonen conducting. It was without question one of the (few) highlights of the Gelb regime at the Met. I found it incredibly moving (and suprisingly uplifting) both times. I haven’t seen the DVD but I think you are right that it comes across better live–the scene where the garbage falls from the sky was quite shocking and I don’t think it would have anything close to that impact on video. A truly wonderful (if odd) work by one of my favorite composers.

    • I really did get the sense with this one that I was missing out seeing it on DVD. Every review I’ve seen of live performances, and this production has been around, have been so enthusiastic and yet i was left recognising the excellence but curiously unmoved.

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