Outside that gate is the world of light and freedom, where men live like the rest of mankind. But those living on this side of the fence picture that world as some unattainable fairyland. Here there is a world apart, unlike everything else, with laws of its own, its own dress, its own manners and customs, and here is the house of the living dead -- life as nowhere else and a people apart. It is this corner apart that I am going to describe.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead (trans. Constance Black Garnett), Chapter 1
Janáček, From the House of the Dead, dir. P. Chéreau, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, P. Boulez
(released on April 22, 2008)
Deutsche Grammophon 00440 073 4426
Janáček adapted his libretto from the Dostoevsky novel quoted above, taking much of the dialogue more or less directly from the book while selecting and reordering the episodes. Dostoevsky's narrator presents the story as the memoir of a nobleman sentenced to hard labor in a Siberian prison, found among his papers after his death. Dostoevsky knew something about being a prisoner, because he endured a four-year sentence in Siberia after being convicted for belonging to a proscribed political group (the character of Goryanchikov is a stand-in for Dostoevsky). Pairing up again with Boulez after their ingenious (and, by some, hated) production of The Ring at Bayreuth, Patrice Chéreau goes with the bleak atmosphere of Dostoevsky to make a prison of massive steely walls rising (sets by Richard Peduzzi) into darkness (lighting by Bertrand Couderc) and moving about to close in the stage space claustrophobically. The faded, ratty costumes (designed by Caroline de Vivaise) are all dirty brown, blank gray, and a few faint colors. Chéreau excels at choreographing group movement (assisted here by Thierry Thieû Niang), which is basically all of this opera, requiring skilled acting from characters even when they are not singing.
The cast is strong vocally and largely Czech, which is always a bonus for the pronunciation of this rather complex language. Standing out for particular praise are the obsessive, troubled Luka/Filka of Slovak tenor Štefan Margita (who will make his Met debut this fall, in the same role), the unbalanced Skuratov of John Mark Ainsley, and the solid bass-baritone of Gerd Grochowski's Šiškov. Chéreau emphasizes the paternal relationship of the new political prisoner, Gorjančikov, and the innocent young man, Aljeja (sung by the handsome tenor Eric Stoklossa, rather than as a trouser role for mezzo-soprano, the other option allowed by the score), whom he teaches to read. All of this contributes to the verisimilitude of the production, which does not take place in a specific prison, perhaps, but in a place which all viewers would likely recognize as "prison." Like other Janáček operas (Cunning Little Vixen and Jenůfa, especially) the composer holds his strongest moments for the ending, when some especially transcendent music takes hold of the score, depicting the ultimate fate of the wounded eagle the prisoners have found. This is a very good way to get to know this gorgeous opera, especially if followed up by a live performance at the Met in a couple months.
100' + 48' (with worthy extra tracks of rehearsals and conversations among the creative team)