Monday, November 16, 2009

A Masterly Debut

From the House of the Dead
Composed by Leos Janácek
Directed by Patrice Chereau
Conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen
Starring Willard White, Peter Mattei, Eric Stoklossa, Stefan Margita, Kurt Streit, Peter Hoare

The Metropolitan Opera
Performances on November 12, 16, 21, 24, 28, December 2, 5, 2009

When I heard Leos Janácek’s last opera, From the House of the Dead, in a concert version by Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall in 2003, I figured that would be the closest I’d come to experiencing this one-of-a kind operatic masterpiece in person. Happily, I was wrong.

The Met has finally brought Patrice Chereau’s absolutely mesmerizing production of From the House of the Dead to New York in what is the eminent stage director’s house debut (what took so long?), and it is the operatic event of the season. If you don’t have tickets yet, get them; if you don’t think you could sit through 90 intermission-less minutes of an opera sung in Czech based on Dostoyevsky’s novel about life in a prison camp, this amazing work will change your mind.

Janácek adapted Dostoyevsky’s novel with single-minded obsessiveness, adding only dozen or so lines of his own; the prisoners‘ stories of utter subjugation and anonymity are accompanied by Janácek’s brilliant music, which alternates between ominously shrieking and luminously hopeful. (The composer died before finishing all of the orchestration, so he never saw or heard it performed.)

There is no plot, merely vignettes of the men talking about what brought them to Siberia and, in a marvelous second-act centerpiece, putting on pantomimes for their fellow prisoners. Throughout its three sharply-focused, succinct acts, From the House of the Dead eschews sentiment in favor of honesty, and even though its outlook is bleak it‘s not entirely fatalistic: there‘s a sense that both author and composer want their audiences to understand these men as broken but not hopeless.

In Chereau’s stunning staging, the men are surrounded by set designer Richard Peduzzi’s three massive floor-to-ceiling walls, upon which the libretto’s text is (often ingeniously) projected. There are no real starring roles, although three prisoners give emotionally charged soliloquies, one in each act; the chorus plays the prisoners milling around the grounds, sitting in the bleachers watching the pantomimes, or performing menial jobs like picking up tons of paper, dropped onto the stage in a brilliant coup de theatre. Bertrand Couderc’s democratic lighting rarely spotlights the actors, even when they are singing; at times, it’s difficult to make out exactly who’s singing or where they are onstage.

Esa-Pekka Salonen also makes his Met debut leading the Met Orchestra and Chorus in a tremendous, muscularly powerful performance of Janácek’s notoriously demanding score. Even the very opening, when the lights suddenly go dark and Salonen, already in the pit, begins the opera with the forbidden opening chords of the prelude, is a splendid choice that plunges us directly into this darkly sinister world.

The Met’s superlative ensemble is led by the men of the Met Chorus under chorus master Donald Palumbo (there is one minor female role) who not only sing brilliantly, but are equally striking as the prisoners. Of the soloists, the trio singing each act’s lone monologue—Stefan Margita (Luka), Kurt Streit (Skuratov) and Peter Mattei (Shishkov)—is formidable. The nimble choreography of the second-act pantomimes is by associate director Thierry Thieu Niang, who also had a hand in the arresting movements of the ensemble throughout.

One of the major achievements in 20th century opera, From the House of the Dead finally gets its due alongside the other Janácek masterworks Jenufa, Kata Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropulos Case. The only mature Janácek opera still unstaged in New York is the fantastic The Excursions of Mr. Brouchek—maybe George Steel at City Opera could have a go at it? In the meantime, we have this long-awaited and memorable triple debut of Chereau, Salonen, and Janácek’s opera.
originally posted on

No comments: