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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
From the House of the Dead (1927-1928)
Libretto – Leoš Janáček (after Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov - Peter Rose, Aljeja - Evgeniya Sotnikova, Luka Kuzmič (Filka Morozov) - Aleš Briscein, Skuratov - Charles Workman, Šiškov - Bo Skovhus, Prison Governor - Christian Rieger, Nikita, Big Prisoner - Manuel Günther, Small Prisoner - Tim Kuypers, Old Prisoner - Ulrich Ress, Cook - Boris Prýgl, Čekunov - Johannes Kammler, Šapkin - Kevin Conners, Blacksmith (a Prisoner) – Alexander Milev, Kedril, Prisoner – Matthew Grills, Prostitute – Niamh O’Sullivan, Don Juan/Brahmane – Callum Thorpe, Čerevin – Dean Power, Drunken Prisoner – Galeano Salas, Guard – Long Long
Bavarian State Opera Chorus
Bavarian State Orchestra/Simone Young
Frank Castorf (stage director), Aleksandar Denić (set designer), Adriana Braga Peretzki (costume designer), Rainer Casper (lighting designer)
rec. Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, May 2018
Picture format: 1 DVD9 NTSC, 16:9. Sound format: PCM 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, German, Korean, Japanese.

This new DVD of Janáček’s late operatic masterpiece is most welcome, as it’s been twelve years since its predecessor appeared. That was the version on DG by stage director Patrice Chéreau with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Arnold Schoenberg Choir conducted by Pierre Boulez, a production staged at the 2007 Vienna Festival and repeated elsewhere including the recording in Aix-en-Provence. That version was the premiere commercial video of the opera and it is as impressive now as it was when I viewed it then.

My initial exposure to the opera was a Supraphon recording by the Prague National Theatre forces under Bohumil Gregor from the 1960s, the first account to use the opera’s original ending. This was superseded by the famous Charles Mackerras/Vienna Philharmonic recording in 1980 for Decca, which received many accolades and still serves as the reference version. As Robert Cummings points out in this review of the Blu-ray disc of this present production, Mackerras and John Tyrrell prepared a new edition adhering as closely as possible to the original scoring for the 1980 recording. That presumably is the edition Boulez/Chéreau employed in their 2007 performance. Now we have the latest update in the DVD under review here, a 2017 critical edition by Tyrell. Comparing Boulez/Chéreau with this one by the Bavarian State Opera, under the direction of Frank Castorf and conducted by Simone Young, I detected no differences in the scoring. However, this was based only on listening, since I did not have a printed score to follow.

While the actual performances by the respective soloists, chorus, and orchestra of both productions superb, the staging of them are as different as can be imagined. I would agree with Robert that this new one is vexing with so much goings-on that it would take several viewings to understand all of the apparent symbolism in it. He has outlined this well in his review, so I will not go into detail. Chéreau’s production, on the other hand, is rather plain and drab in comparison. It depicts a concrete prison with a high walls in tones of gray and the prisoners are also dressed in drab colours. With the attention on their various stories and the opera’s plot in general, this is not a drawback. Rather, it lets one focus on the music and the characters’ acting without other distractions. Some have thought that From the House of the Dead is too static with little action taking place for most of the opera, but I think the characters in their dramatic use of “speech-melody” and the magnificent orchestral score are plenty enough to keep one captivated.

One problem I have with the new production is the casting and portrayal of Aljeja, a trousers role in Janáček’s score, here who first appears as a bird of paradise—presumably the injured eagle that is later freed—and then is portrayed variously as a young woman and as a man. In the original score, Aljeja is attacked by another prisoner and suffers through to the end of the opera. Here a prisoner who is attacking Aljeja is shot by a guard and Aljeja is carried off by Gorjančikov. Later Aljeja reappears in feminine form unscathed, and then again as the bird. Chéreau/Boulez solve the problem of Aljeja by having the role sung by a tenor rather than a mezzo. It is certainly more convincing even if it contradicts the composer’s intention. The eagle in that production is just made of wood and has a broken wing. Another oddity in Castorf/Young is the spoken monologue in Spanish by the Drunken Prisoner (here portrayed by Galeano Salas) between the second and third acts where he tells the Gospel story of Christ casting out a sinner’s demons, though I suppose it could be justified by Aljeja’s next appearance where Aljeja refers to Jesus and miracles. For me the monologue is unconvincing and totally unnecessary.

I can appreciate both productions, but plan to listen to Castorf/Young in future with the video turned off. All of the soloists in this production are first-rate. Indeed, it would be difficult to single out any one in particular over another. The orchestra is also wonderful and recorded more closely than in the Boulez account, allowing one to savour the wonderful instrumental parts, especially the horns.

The DVD contains only the opera without any extra material. It would have been beneficial for a discussion on the making of the production like that appended in the Chéreau/Boulez recording. The video and sound on the DVD are state-of-the-art. I cannot imagine the Blu-ray being that much superior, but I haven’t seen it. Included with the DVD is a booklet with full-colour photos, a listing of the cast and each scene with its timing, and a synopsis of the acts. Overall, I highly recommend the DVD for its musical values, but caution viewers on its visual aspects.

Leslie Wright
Previous reviews (Blu-ray): Robert Cummings ~ Jim Westhead

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