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.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
Henri Dutilleux’s music has its devotees. I am yet to join their ranks, but had no reason to think this was not an admirable performance of his song-cycle Correspondances.
In 1980, the Metropolitan Opera commissioned composer John Corigliano to write an opera celebrating the company’s one-hundredth anniversary. It was to be ready in 1983.
English National Opera’s revival of Peter Konwitschny’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata had many elements in common with the production’s original outing in 2013 (The production was a co-production with Opera Graz, where it had debuted in 2011).
You might believe you could go to an opera and take in what you see at face value. But if you did that just now in Lyon you would have had no idea what was going on.
I wonder whether we need a new way of thinking — and talking — about operatic ‘revivals’. Perhaps the term is more meaningful when it comes to works that have been dead and buried for years, before being rediscovered by subsequent generations.
Hopefully this brilliant new production of Iphigénie en Tauride from the Grand Théâtre de Genève will find its way to the new world now that Gluck’s masterpiece has been introduced to American audiences.
Tristan first appeared on the stage of the Théâtre du Capitole in 1928, sung in French, the same language that served its 1942 production even with Wehrmacht tanks parked in front of the opera house.
Arizona Opera presented Eugene Onegin during and 1999-2000 season and again on February 1 of this year as part of the 2014-2015 season. In this country Onegin is not a crowd pleaser like La Bohème or Carmen, but its story is believable and its music melodic and memorable. Just hum the beginning of the “Polonaise” and your friends will know the music, if not where it comes from.
Florian Boesch and Roger Vignoles at the Wigmore Hall in Ernst Krenek’s Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen. Matthias Goerne has called Hanns Eisler’s Hollywooder Liederbuch the Winterreise of the 20th century. Boesch and Vignoles showed how Krenek’s Reisebuch is a journey of discovery into identity at an era of extreme social change. It is a parable, indeed, of modern times.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new Anna Bolena, a production shared with Minnesota Opera, features a distinguished cast including several notable premieres.
On Tuesday January 27, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme. It is the opera with which the company opened in 1965 and a work that the company has faithfully performed every five years since then.
Last year we tracked Orfeo on his desperate search for his lost Euridice, through the labyrinths and studio spaces of Central St Martin’s; this year we were plunged into Macbeth’s tragic pursuit of power in the bare blackness of the CSM’s Platform Theatre.
Béla Bartók’s only opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, composed in 1911 and based upon a libretto by the Hungarian writer Béla Balázs, was not initially a success.
Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead is a very odd duck to find on the stage of a grand opera house.
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.