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Seen and Heard International Opera Review

Janáček ,  From the House of the Dead: Soloists,  Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Pierre Boulez (conductor)  Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, Holland 31. 5.2007 (AO)  


Alexander Petrovič Gorjančikov : Olaf Bär
Aljeja : Erik Stokloßa
Filka /Luka : Stefan Margita
Big convict : Peter Straka
Little convict : Vladimir Chmelo
The commandant : Jiři Sulzenko
The convict overseer : Hans Zednik
Skuratov : John Mark Ainsley
Čekunov : Jan Galla
Prostitute : Susannah Haberfeld
Šapkin : Peter Hoare
Kedril : Marian Pavlovič
Šiskov : Gerd Grochowski
Cerevin : Andreas Conrad

Director : Patrice Chéreau

Boulez and Chéreau of course, created a now-legendary centenary Ring cycle at Bayreuth, which revolutionised Wagner performance, illuminating the music and ideas  and vindicating Wieland Wagner’s vision of what the work could mean.  Since Boulez only conducts music he feels he can do something special with, this Janáček performance was clearly an event of signifigance.  It is also the first time in years that he’s worked again with Chéreau, whom he regards highly.  The production of From The House of the Dead, was therefore unmissable on many counts and although I worried beforehand that my expectations might be too high, they were, in fact, exceeded.  Boulez and Chéreau have achieved something truly transformational with this Janáček, bringing out new insights and fascinating possibilities.

Boulez has long been interested in Janáček, having conducted all the orchestral music and works for smaller ensemble : though recordings don’t at all reflect what happens in the real world.  Half a century ago, he came to Janáček through the seminal The Diary of One who Disappeared, where the lines between reality and fantasy blur.  In an interview with Pierre Audi  after that performance, Boulez spoke about what thrilled him about the music.  “Janáček adapts,” he said “the absence of conventional development in folk music”. Janáček also built his music around “found sounds”, such as the syntax of speech and he even notated the clucking of chickens in his garden.

Consequently, Boulez hears surprising modernism and freshness in Janáček's muisc.  Its repetitive pulse varies through changes in rhythm, tone and direction. This opera is “primitive, in the best sense”, he says in the production programme notes, “but also extremely strong”, like the paintings of Léger, where the “rudimentary character allows a very vigorous kind of expression”.  Thus, there are “many cases where you cannot find the logic in how the rhythmic notation changes from one ostinato to the next….so you have to take a little freedom”. 

This was an electrifying performance, crackling with energy.  Boulez builds up swirling layers of sound in huge blocks, out of which details flicker past.  Even in the grimness of this Siberian gulag, Janáček’s characteristic lyrical motifs surface, tantalisingly. The shrill, shimmering sections created an eerie light against the darkness, animated by strident blasts of brass.  Boulez captures a powerful sense of movement in the music, so it seems to surge on with inexorable force.  This isn’t the easiest of narratives – nothing much happens in the plot – so the drama in many ways “is” the music. Although I know this opera reasonably well, from Václav Neumann and Mackerras, Boulez’s passionate intensity revealed many more new levels in Janáček than I had imagined.  His is an approach almost certainly informed by an intimate knowledge of the composer’s other work and its relation to modern music.

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra was specifically created as a specialist orchestra for chamber-like virtuosity. It was founded by Claudio Abbado, who chose Daniel Harding as its Music Director in 1998.  Unique in many ways, the orchestra is fast becoming the one of the most visionary ensembles in Europe, highly respected for the quality of its playing and innovative approach.  Boulez must have had a wonderful time conducting players of this calibre.  I’ve heard them many times and they just get better – this really is an orchestra to follow.  There will be exciting times ahead.

This was an approach to Janáček that was, “totally relevant for our time”, as Chéreau said later in his interview with Audi.  Someone asked why he didn’t make it into a parable about Guantanamo Bay, for instance and he said “No”, this is universal - orange jumpsuits would only mute the wider implications”.  In an impish aside, Boulez quipped “and orange is the colour of Holland”.  It’s a good point, because a single image can often have multiple meanings.  This production was created with perceptive depth, with everything in it designed to amplify meaning.  For example, the prisoners are engaged in pointless repetitive work – shipbuilding in Siberia, no less.  Instead of a huge construction, which would dominate and distract, Chéreau explodes a bomb out of which cascade streams of waste paper, which the prisoners collect in bags. The explosion coincides with a huge, dramatic climax in the music, and the “gleaning” movements in the repetitive figures.   This close integration between music and staging reflects the way Boulez and Chéreau work together.  From the outset, Boulez and Chereau were both at rehearsals, so the ideas developed with an understanding of the full orchestral score.  Actors were used to explore the body language and dynamic of the characters, so the singers had more to work with when developing their vocal approaches.

“Coherence”, said Chéreau, "between ideas, music and drama, is the basis of the interpretation. The eagle, for example, is a critical symbol.  It would be easy to go for a “happy ending” with the bird flying free, but  it would be simplistic.  Rather, much of the plot seems to pivot on the pointlessness of destiny.  Gorjančikov is imprisoned, beaten and freed without the least semblance of explanation.  There’s no resolution, nothing really changes.  Just as the prisoners are toys of fate, the eagle too, the “Tzar of the air” is a mechanical creation, reflecting the driving pulse of the music.

The singers seemed particularly inspired by this visionary approach. In this opera, there aren’t any fancy arias, all roles being treated as parts of a whole.  Just as in a prison, individuality is suppressed.  Each singer thus has to find something of his own in his role and bring out a personal signifigance.  Olaf Bär’s imposing stage presence gave Gorjančikov a sense of importance :  we never know who he is exaclty except that he’s a political prisoner, but Bär’s vocal authority makes us imagine his history.  When he’s beaten and stripped, we identify all the more with his humiliation. 

Interestingly, Boulez chose a tenor for Aljeja, where Neumann and Mackerras opted for a soprano.  His reason was that carefully chosen male voices can blend subtly in the right ensemble and that a woman in a male role would be an unnecessary diversion from the real issues in the plot.  Erik Stokloßa vindicates the decision, for his deeper voice integrates well and he’s totally convincing.  When Gorjančikov teaches Aljeja to read, we hear a delightful freshness infuse Stokloßa’s  singing, enhancing the “springtime” melody so typical of the composer.  The acting here, perhaps inspired by the thought and effort put into the portrayals, was superlative.  John Mark Ainsley  in white makeup, dressed like a corpse in a torn shroud, risen from the grave, laughed maniacally as Luka dies, and Aljeja suffers.  It was horribly gruesome yet completely apt.

Janáček’s “speech melodies” matter more than usual in this stark, unadorned opera, and in this production, the sharpness of diction and syntax in the singing captured the craggy, angular idiosyncrasies in the music perfectly.  The refrains “Hou, hou, hou ! “, and “Chi, chi, chi !” and even “Ach…ach….ach !” function  as if they were abstract parts of the orchestration.

Yet, as Chéreau points out, what really pervades the opera for him is its implicit humanity.  Under the harshness and violence a sense of “compassion”, as he puts it, flows surprisingly strongly  and
runs like a hidden stream throughout the opera, surfacing at critical junctures.  It is also totally non-judgemental.  Neither murderers nor guards are held to account, they simply exist.  The famous phrase near the end, “he too was born of a mother” seems to pervade the narrative long before it is actually uttered.  This performance touched on something quite fundamental embedded beneath the harsh angularity and “primitiveness” of the score,   such was the intelligence and understanding that went into its conception.  The underlying warmth showed in the passion of the orchestral playing too so that the whole production cohered as music and drama.

The production  continues through July in Aix en Provence and at La Scala in Milan.  It will also move to New York, but with Eska-Pekka Salonen conducting in place of Boulez.    Hopefully, it may be preserved on film, like the excellent Audi Ring Cycle, filmed in this very same theatre a few years ago.  It certainly deserves to reach a wider audience than the lucky few who can attend. Absolutely, this is not one to miss.


Anne Ozorio

Pictures © Ros Ribas

For more on this exciting orchestra, please see :



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