Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’)

Rising Stars in Concert 2018 at Lyric Opera of Chicago

On a recent weekend evening the performers in the current roster of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a concert of operatic selections showcasing their musical talents. The Lyric Opera Orchestra accompanied the performers and was conducted by Edwin Outwater.

Arizona Opera Presents a Glittering Rheingold

On April 6, 2018, Arizona Opera presented an uncut performance of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. It was the first time in two decades that this company had staged a Ring opera.

Handel's Teseo brings 2018 London Handel Festival to a close

The 2018 London Handel Festival drew to a close with this vibrant and youthful performance (the second of two) at St George’s Church, Hanover Square, of Handel’s Teseo - the composer’s third opera for London after Rinaldo (1711) and Il pastor fido (1712), which was performed at least thirteen times between January and May 1713.

Camille Saint-Saens: Mélodies avec orchestra

Saint-Saëns Mélodies avec orchestra with Yann Beuron and Tassis Christoyannis with the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Markus Poschner.

The Moderate Soprano

The Moderate Soprano and the story of Glyndebourne: love, opera and Nazism in David Hare’s moving play

The Spirit of England: the BBCSO mark the centenary of the end of the Great War

Well, it was Friday 13th. I returned home from this moving and inspiring British-themed concert at the Barbican Hall in which the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sir Andrew Davis had marked the centenary of the end of World War I, to turn on my lap-top and discover that the British Prime Minister had authorised UK armed forces to participate with French and US forces in attacks on Syrian chemical weapon sites.

Thomas Adès conducts Stravinsky's Perséphone at the Royal Festival Hall

This seemed a timely moment for a performance of Stravinsky’s choral ballet, Perséphone. April, Eliot’s ‘cruellest month’, has brought rather too many of Chaucer’s ‘sweet showers [to] pierce the ‘drought of March to the root’, but as the weather finally begins to warms and nature stirs, what better than the classical myth of the eponymous goddess’s rape by Pluto and subsequent rescue from Hades, begetting the eternal rotation of the seasons, to reassure us that winter is indeed over and the spirit of spring is engendering the earth.

Dido and Aeneas: La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall

This performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates, was, characteristically for this ensemble, alert to musical details, vividly etched and imaginatively conceived.

Bernstein's MASS at the Royal Festival Hall

In 1969, Mrs Aristotle Onassis commissioned a major composition to celebrate the opening of a new arts centre in Washington, DC - the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, named after her late husband, President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated six years earlier.

Hans Werner Henze : The Raft of the Medusa, Amsterdam

This is a landmark production of Hans Werner Henze's Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa) conducted by Ingo Metzmacher in Amsterdam earlier this month, with Dale Duesing (Charon), Bo Skovhus and Lenneke Ruiten, with Cappella Amsterdam, the Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderen Jeugdkoor, and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, in a powerfully perceptive staging by Romeo Castellucci.

Johann Sebastian Bach, St John Passion, BWV 245

This was the first time, I think, since having moved to London that I had attended a Bach Passion performance on Good Friday here.

Easter Voices, including mass settings by Mozart and Stravinsky

It was a little early, perhaps, to be hearing ‘Easter Voices’ in the middle of Holy Week. However, this was not especially an Easter programme – and, in any case, included two pieces from Gesualdo’s Tenebrae responsories for Good Friday. Given the continued vileness of the weather, a little foreshadowing of something warmer was in any case most welcome. (Yes, I know: I should hang my head in Lenten shame.)

Academy of Ancient Music: St John Passion at the Barbican Hall

‘In order to preserve the good order in the Churches, so arrange the music that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.’

Fiona Shaw's The Marriage of Figaro returns to the London Coliseum

The white walls of designer Peter McKintosh’s Ikea-maze are still spinning, the ox-skulls are still louring, and the servants are still eavesdropping, as Fiona Shaw’s 2011 production of The Marriage of Figaro returns to English National Opera for its second revival. Or, perhaps one should say that the servants are still sleeping - slumped in corridors, snoozing in chairs, snuggled under work-tables - for at times this did seem a rather soporific Figaro under Martyn Brabbins’ baton.

Lenten Choral Music from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Time was I could hear the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge almost any evening I chose, at least during term time. (If I remember correctly, Mondays were reserved for the mixed voice King’s Voices.)

A New Faust at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s innovative, new production of Charles Gounod’s Faust succeeds on multiple levels of musical and dramatic representation. The title role is sung by Benjamin Bernheim, his companion in adventure Méphistophélès is performed by Christian Van Horn.

Netrebko rules at the ROH in revival of Phyllida Lloyd's Macbeth

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play of the night: of dark interiors and shadowy forests. ‘Light thickens, and the crow/Makes wing to th’ rooky wood,’ says Macbeth, welcoming the darkness which, whether literal or figurative, is thrillingly and threateningly palpable.

San Diego’s Ravishing Florencia

Daniel Catán’s widely celebrated opera, Florencia en el Amazonas received a top tier production at the wholly rejuvenated San Diego Opera company.

Samantha Hankey wins Glyndebourne Opera Cup

Four singers were awarded prizes at the inaugural Glyndebourne Opera Cup, which reached its closing stage at Glyndebourne on 24th March. The Glyndebourne Opera Cup focuses on a different single composer or strand of the repertoire each time it is held. In 2018 the featured composer was Mozart and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment accompanied the ten finalists.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Peter Mattei as Shishkov [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
17 Nov 2009

From the House of the Dead at the MET

Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead is a very odd duck to find on the stage of a grand opera house.

Leoš Janáček: From the House of the Dead

Filka Morozov: Stefan Margita; Skuratov: Kurt Streit; Shapkin: Peter Hoare; Shishkov: Peter Mattei; Gorianchikov: Willard White; Alyeya: Eric Stoklossa; Commandant: Vladimir Ognovenko; Prostitute: Kelly Cae Hogan. Production by Patrice Chéreau. Chorus and orchestra of the Met, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Performance of November 12.

Above: Peter Mattei as Shishkov

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera

 

The libretto is taken from Dostoevsky’s plotless collection of “notes” from his years in a Siberian prison camp, anecdotes and word-pictures of the tedium and occasional horror and joy of that existence, lacking immediate effect but packing cumulative punch. Janáček, naturally, picked and chose among these brief tales, and there is no single character, single drama with which he (or we) identify or follow: his protagonist is humanity, guilty, often criminally guilty, but never to be denied the sympathy and pity Janáček had earlier so sublimely evoked for Jenufa, her murderous stepmother and her two selfish lovers.

There being no real story in the opera, the men sing mostly of nostalgia or of the crimes that got them into trouble, and Janáček’s score provides soaring, lyrical, nostalgic themes to mitigate the harsh, percussive, maddening rhythmic passages. This is the same method he had used to tell the stories of Jenufa and Katya Kabanova, but both those stories had heroines we could follow with bated breath. We know none of the men in From the House of the Dead nearly so well, and our pity is hampered by that queasy unknowing: what other side of their character are they concealing? The beautiful Daghestani boy, Alyeya, for example, who charms us with his wish to learn to read, took part in a murderous attack on a peaceful Armenian caravan, though Janáček leaves that story out. The message appears to be: Whatever they have done, and whether they deserve punishment or not, they are your fellow human beings and you will pity them, empathize with them. It is a very humane message, and relevant to every age.

But that very absence of specificity makes the opera difficult to stage except on intimate terms, and the enormous Met is not intimate. In an attempt to deal with this, Alyeya is always kept downstage right so we can remember who he is, and titles, in addition to appearing on the backs of the seats in front of us, are projected here and there on the stage — fine for the far-sighted, a nuisance for others, annoying to those who would like to concentrate on the score, and infuriating when (as happened several times opening night) the wrong title is projected too soon. It is doubtful that a tale at once so diffuse and so intimate could have been presented successfully at the Met at all without some sort of titling — the City Opera’s production a quarter century ago was a tedious failure, not played very well — but the stage pictures on this occasion, though performed with agility, did not always focus attention where it might have brought comprehension.

Or was my discomfort exactly the effect director Patrice Chéreau, in his company debut (greeted with standing ovation, as were the cast and orchestra), wished to produce? Chéreau is perhaps of the school that does not wish to comfort but disturb with opera, and this is an opera not intended to provide comfort. In that light, the decision to perform it in one intermissionless hour-and-a-half act is the proper one, musically and dramatically.

Willard White (kneeling) as Alexander Petrovich Gorianchikov in a scene from Act I of Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead,” with actors (left to right) Carlton Tanis, Collin McGee, and Marty Keiser.

It might be instructive to compare From the House of the Dead to Beethoven’s Fidelio. The operas have in common their setting in a prison full of not-quite-hopeless men (all the prisoners in both operas are men) justly or unjustly convicted but in either case denied a human existence by the condemnation and willful ignorance of the society to which they once belonged. These are men that even societies that take pride in their commitment to personal freedom can restrict, despise, ignore — as the example of the enormous prison population of the United States attests.

In Fidelio, the story is frankly ludicrous: a woman disguises herself as a man in order to seek her husband in the prison system, and is so convincing (though rarely so to us) that the jailer’s daughter falls in love with her. But this story from opera buffa sets off the true matter: the heroism of the woman, her determined success in rescuing her husband. We are seduced by the opening everyday comic scenes, despite their prison setting and such reminders of another world as the glorious Prisoners’ Chorus that another world exists. When we explore the horrors in Act II, the very fact that such ordinary, even ridiculous people can ennoble themselves to such heights, can challenge and even conquer tyranny, makes a case for the nobility of the human race itself, even for us mere spectators. It is sublime theater, with the symbolic, cathartic effect theater was originally intended to have.

In From the House of the Dead, we are given no such easy key to let us choose the “right” side, to let us admire the “heroic” figure. Janáček, though born in 1854, is modern in his outlook, and though he died before the Nazis came to power, he could see where the century was going. His naturalistic theater shows us not cartoons of the human soul but (even in fables like Matter Makropoulos) something much closer to the human bone. His figures are none of them cardboard: In From the House of the Dead, the sadistic Commandant repents, the prisoners suffer but they continue their tedious lives. Dostoevsky explains that they made money by various handicrafts, all (and the tools to make them) forbidden by the authorities, and sold them in the village nearby for money immediately spent (lest it be found and confiscated) on vodka, warm clothes or the local whores. The enormous, forbidding cement walls of Richard Peduzzi’s set were in fact quite unnecessary in Siberia — if a man escaped, especially in shackles (the Met cast wear shackles), he had nowhere to go and soon perished in the wilderness. But the set, if not Siberian, gives us the right symbol for staging a prison camp, and the spectacular scene change at the end of Act I (no, I’m not going to spoil it) is a jolt that makes the prisoners’ endless plight seem especially unnerving.

A scene from Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead” with Heinz Zednik as The Old Prisoner (left, holding eagle), Eric Stoklossa (on ground) as Alyeya and Stefan Margita (right) as Filka Morozov.

The staging puzzled me because it was unclear which character was which, or to remember him from earlier moments — costumes did not help, and faces were vague from Row W, an effect that can only have been enhanced upstairs. Too, the “mimes” the prisoners put on in Act II for an audience of visiting townsfolk seemed not at all the gently ironic variations on themes of obsession that such men might provide for respectable visitors, but heavily, brutally sexualized for the benefit of the twenty-first-century operagoer instead. It was not believable. If the men are capable of such ironic creativity, it puts their agony elsewhere in question. On four hours’ sleep a night, sleeping on planks with thirty other men (Dostoevsky’s description), would such rampant sexuality survive?

On the musical side, under the superb direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen, in his house debut, the Metropolitan Orchestra made a case for this work as an organic unity, its bitter percussion and soaring lyricism tautly held in a theatrically fulfilling symphony. This was music-making to cherish on every level, every rhythm crisp, every melody reaching for our heart and falling short only because it was in chains. Janáček’s humanity has never been more joyously in evidence. My desire to go to this production again had little to do with the staging and everything — besides Janáček’s own fine work — to do with Salonen and the Met Orchestra, and a yearning to hear such music again.

The singers were all able and so drawn into the acting of the piece that they seemed to take few “vocal” moments — they came across as presenting “conversational” drama. Willard White and Eric Stoklossa brought poignance to Gorianchikov’s tutoring of Alyeya — it is an interesting point, one neither Dostoevsky nor Janáček underlines, that when Alyeya is asked what miracle of Jesus he most admires, he mentions the tale of Jesus molding a clay bird and having it come to life and fly away — which connects in the opera to the image of an injured eagle, cared for by the prisoners and liberated in the concluding image. Although Alyeya is being taught to read with the Gospels, that story is not to be found there, but comes from the Koran, where Jesus is also an honored prophet; Alyeya, who is Muslim, heard it back home in Daghestan and never forgot it. Vladimir Ognovenko was effective as an apologetic, drunken, brutal Commandant, Kurt Streit an impressive Skuratov, and Kelly Cae Hogan displayed some wonderful contralto lines as a prostitute.

The star turn of the evening — which does not play as a star turn — belongs to Peter Mattei as Shishkov, so fine a singer one regrets when he turns to such unlyrical roles, so fine an actor that one hardly notices how brilliantly he is singing. Shishkov calls to mind the Yugoslav statesman Milovan Djilas’s comparison of Serbs and Russians — “Serbs are simple Slavs; a Serb will kill you. Russians are complex Slavs; a Russian will kill you and then weep.” He is haunted by the progression of evil deeds that led to his luckless marriage to the woman he then murdered — too, the man has obviously been drinking, bad vodka presumably — and his story, which occupies most of the last scene of the opera, holds us riveted as if Janáček had made that story into an opera, as he easily might have done. There is activity all about the stage during this narration, behind and around Mattei and in the high reaches of the monstrous set, but he never loses our attention for an instant, and his singing is as wonderful as his acting.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):