11/24 Janacek’s From the House of the Dead @ The Met Opera
Magical is usually not the first adjective that comes to mind when one thinks of an opera based on Dostoevsky’s experiences in a prison camp. And yet, that is precisely the word I would use to describe the production I saw last Tuesday. The blend of evocative music, terrific ensemble acting and singing, appropriate design was like no other opera I’ve experienced before.
The design of the opera was quite good, gritty and realistic, almost like watching a movie (what a pity this production is not being broadcast in HD!) The grey concrete of the prison camp and the drab clothing of the prisoners gave the proper air of the mind numbing boredom that would be life in a prison camp, but it was the staging choices themselves that were most effective. At the opening of Act 1 fighting prisoners were put into a line to receive what looked to be soup, but after half the line had their cups filled, the guards inexplicably denied the rest of the line a meal. Such arbitrary injustices appeared multiple times in the play, a daily plague. Later, prisoners were seen dressing in a seething mass, revealing the complete lack of privacy prisoners had. The staging of a play-within-the opera was done with the “actors’ ” backs to the opera audience while the prison spectators looked out towards us, a telling mirror image. The transition between Act 1 and Act 2 was marked by a large amount of debris falling from the ceiling, which the prisoners then cleaned up with baskets. There was no glamour about it-one had a very clear idea of what it would be like to be a prisoner in the camp, of the monotony and small injustices or projects that characterized everyday life.
Given the staging, one might think the opera quite depressing, yet the music was so sympathetic and almost uplifting that the prisoners were transformed. The stark reality of the staging was overcome by the transcendence of the music. Janacek wrote in a style that incorporated late Romanticism, Stravinsky, and Czech folk music; a blend that allowed for a wide range of expression in the music. The way the opera was written, the music was almost a wordless narrator, giving depth to each character and event. The music could have stood alone as an orchestral work, but proved even more potent with the lyrical settings of the Czech words. For me, the power of the music in the work left a lasting impression and lent a significant sparkle to the opera.
Conductor Esa Pekka Salonen was masterful in his conducting of the piece (basically a 100 minute tone poem for orchestra), and the orchestra played vivaciously and supportively. The male chorus was an impressive sound, while each soloist shone as he told the story of how he had arrived in the prison. Particularly impressive was Peter Mattei in the role of Shishkov, who tells his story of murdering his wife for loving another man in Act 3. The drama and conflict of the story were evident in Mattei’s singing, holding the listener spellbound until the end. However, what was really impressive was the ability of the ensemble to work together seamlessly; given that the opera does not have a dynamic plot, it is the forceful and dramatic singing that carried the show.
Bravo to the Met for deciding to take on a difficult and unknown opera. I think, given that the house was full, they have been justly rewarded. I was left wondering what other gems might be buried behind concrete walls in Siberia, and hoping that I might get the chance to hear them. Given the general acclaim and popularity of this production, I hope the Met, and other opera companies, are encouraged to take chances and program modern and less well-known works. If they are done with as much care and talent as this production, and if they have so moving a score, they are surely going to succeed.