Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead), an opera in three acts by Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) with a libretto by the composer himself, based on Fjodor Dostojewski’s novel Memoirs from the House of the Dead. Setting: a prison camp on the River Irtysj in Siberia, in the mid-nineteenth century. Première in the National Theatre Brno on 12-04-1930. Performance seen: 6 November, La Monnaie / De Munt, Brussels.
Elderly Prisoner : Graham Clark
Skuratov: Ladislav Elgr
Tichon Kabanov: John Graham-Hall
Šapkin: Peter Hoare
Young Prisoner: Florian Hoffmann
Šiškov: Pavlo Hunka
Don Juan: Aleš Jenis
Čerevin: Alexander Kravets
Drunk Prisoner : Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Čekunov: Ivan Ludlow
Luka Kuzmič: Štefan Margita
Voice (offstage) : Maxime Melnik
Prostitute: Natascha Petrinsky
Big Prisoner / Nikita: Nicky Spence
Prison Governor: Alexander Vassiliev
Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov: Sir Willard White
Leoš Janáček was a late bloomer. His musical development only matured fully when he was almost fifty. Between 1894 and 1903, he worked on his cantata Amarus and on the opera Jenůfa, which had a very successful première in 1904. His last opera, Z mrtvého domu, known to us as From the House of the Dead, remained unfinished at the time of Janáček’s death in August 1928. A few of his students added a more or less happy ending to it, which had never been the composer’s intention. Janáček’s libretto was based on Dostojewski’s novel Записки из Мёртвого дома (Zapiski iz Myortvogo doma, Memoirs from the House of the Dead, 1862), which describes the harshness of life in a Siberian prison camp. In Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, a group of male prisoners is coerced into carrying out forced labour in inhuman conditions. The guards torture and humiliate them. Janáček highlights the personal stories of a few of these forced labourers. One of them is political prisoner Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov, who also suffers torture and later befriends fellow prisoner Aljeja. In the end, Gorjančikov is unexpectedly released. The other prisoners respond by setting free their caged eagle, symbol of the possibility of a new and free life.
A new edition of From the House of the Dead was published in 2017, written by musicologist John Tyrell and including performance suggestions by conductor Charles Mackerras. Michael Boder, who was musical director of the Munt production, turned to these two Janáček experts for advice.
From the House of the Dead is not an opera with a real plot, but more a collection of connected dramatic scenes, carried by the soloists who form a ‘Siberian chorus’ as it were, in which the spotlight falls on each member in turns. This means that no real distinction is made between leading and supporting roles in the huge cast of roughly 20 soloists. After the overture, which was originally a violin concerto, we are transported to a prison camp in Siberia, on a winter morning. Political prisoner Gorjančikov is brought into the camp and taunted by the camp commander, who has him tortured. The prisoners carry with them an eagle, with a broken wing, and sing a lament about having had to leave their homes behind. Skuratov tries to distract them and Luka recounts the murder of his commander, the crime for which he has now been imprisoned. In the second act, six months later on the River Irtysj, Gorjančikov befriends the young Tataar Aljeja and offers to teach him to read. The prisoners try to have a little fun and perform a few excerpts from plays, including Don Juan. Afterwards, while Gorjančikov and Tataar Aljeja are drinking tea, Aljeja is attacked by a jealous fellow prisoner and at the same time, the Young Prisoner goes out with the Prostitute. In the third act, in the prison hospital, there are a number of different scenes: Aljeja talks about the bible, Luka dies and Šapkin recounts the setbacks he has had in life, while Skuratov complains about Luisa’s absence. Šiškov gives a report of his wife’s murder. In the last scene, to Aljeja’s dismay, Gorjančikov is released and the eagle (in this performance, a basketball player) is also released and set free. The prisoners are marched off to labour. According to Janáček, that is…
Obviously, it is impossible to discuss the vocal performances of all the excellent soloists. I have therefore turned to the aid that was hugely popular during my student days at the democratised University of Amsterdam, in the 1970s: the group score! And that has to be a 9 here, since the vocals of the British-Slavic cast was impressive across the board.
Not entirely surprisingly, we were much less enthusiastic about director Krzysztof Warlikowski. Just to frame the thoughts: Sun glasses? Check! Puppets? Check! Smoking on stage? Check! Audience members walking out? Check! Wheelchair? Check! Transvestite? Check! Blow job? Check! Masks? Check! So, all together now: “Pioneering, urgent music theatre for Today’s People!” That’s right, peeps. Naturally, video was used extravagantly, starting during the overture of course. As an irritating disruption, we see the French philosopher and activist Michel Foucault, a lost soul who was extremely popular with the majority of the dazed student population of those same ’70s mentioned above, spouting a few pseudo-intellectual, airy-fairy texts. Unfortunately, with sub and surtitles, most distracting. We did not waste any more of our energy on them. In the opening scene, Gorjančikov appears (played by Willard White, outstanding as ever) but there is such a fairground of excessive incomprehensibilities on stage that Sir Willard is reduced to a sideshow. Whatever, such a man, such a career, are we bothered? Of course we’re not!
Let’s talk about Siberia. I imagine you have an image of emaciated, tortured prisoners in a Siberian prison camp. Sorry, you’re wrong. Director Warlikowski informs us that they are neatly-dressed, well-fed detainees, who without exception suffer from frequent epileptic attacks (we fear: choreography). Movements which visitors to an institution as in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest might find shocking, until Nurse Ratched comforts the worried son and daughter with a fake smile and the words: “Just let them have their fun …”. In the second act: video! Interview with a black prisoner on death row. This prisoner, sentenced to death, says he thinks a lot about death. My goodness, this darned Polish director really forces you to face facts, doesn’t he?! During the excerpts from plays that the prisoners perform for each other by way of brief respite from the misery of their existence, four Siberia prisoners have apparently secretly been practising a funky breakdance in their cells, to fabulous effect. That has to be said. A Siberian life for me! In the third act: over-the-top airy-fairy. We get masks, life-sized puppets and the aforementioned transvestite. The Prostitute is equipped with Stetson, hot pants, white boots and a clumsily-used toy gun (practise, girl!). There’s never a dull moment in this jolly, chaotic vaudeville, as we’ve decided to call this mess.
To put it simply, and without embellishment: such stage direction just does not go with the wonderful, oppressive music no matter what lengths you go to in an effort to justify something that is fundamentally wrong. Janáček’s musical, Slavic idiom (the story is in the notes, as Callas said) is miles away from Warlikowski’s video clip-like direction which seems to be largely inspired by Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock. The Monnaie calls Warlikowski the ‘leading light of European theatre’. What we saw in his direction was more like a brash fairground attraction (and as such quite entertaining, hence the two stars). But it’s a shame, because Janáček’s last opera about the condemned in a Siberian prison camp is a beautiful work. Janáček was a genius in translating literary material into a libretto and composing music that brought the story to life. But “opera is not a museum”, so that has to be changed. It’s an even greater shame when direction fails to stay true to the composer and their music, because the feverish score was in excellent hands with conductor Michael Boder. The compelling, smouldering and scorching music soared above the irritations of the mise en scene and the vocalists were wonderful, as said earlier, in particular and without detracting in any way from the others, Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov, Štefan Margita (Wow! Fantastic!) as Luka and Nicky Spence as Big Prisoner.
The opera ends with the setting free of the eagle. But the eagle was a basketball player (the two are often confused). So, the sportsman first had to be raised from his wheelchair in some faith-healing kind of thing. In what was meant to be a magnificent closing symbol, he was supposed to shoot a hoop. Unfortunately, that shot missed.
The direction and the musical part of this co-production by Royal Opera Covent Garden (2018) and the Opéra National de Lyon (2019) are so far apart that the latter seems to be positioned at a relatively safe distance, as it were, from the dreadful sphere of influence of the former. So, in spite of everything, we enjoyed the performance. We enjoyed Janáček, the soloists (hugely), the chorus and the Monnaie Symphony Orchestra directe by Michael Boder (enormously). It’s hard to ruin good and well-performed music. The last hurdle still to be cleared by the Regietheater company.
Olivier Keegel (published 8 November 2018)