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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, Šiškov - Bo Skovhus, Aljeja - Evgeniya Sotnikova, Luka Kuzmič/Filka Morozov - Aleš Briscein, Skuratov - Charles Workman, Prison Governor - Christian Rieger, Nikita - Manuel Günther, Small Prisoner - Tim Kuypers, Old Prisoner - Ulrich Ress, Cook - Boris Prýgl, Pope - Peter Lobert, Čekunov - Johannes Kammler, Šapkin - Kevin Conners
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: 1BD25 Full-HD 16:9. Sound format: PCM 2.0/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1.
Subtitles: English, French, German, Korean, Japanese.
Reviewed in stereo.
BEL AIR CLASSIQUES BAC573 Blu-ray [97 mins]

From the House of the Dead was Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s final opera, written in the last two years of his life. He was putting the finishing touches on the work just at the time he died. He left it finished, except for checking over the last act, after making some changes to the first two. But others decided that “finished” was not the case, and began making changes and additions: conductor Břetislav Bakala and composer Osvald Chlubna, students and associates of the composer, made various alterations to the score, and Ota Zítek revised the libretto. The opera was performed for a time in their version. In 1961, conductor Rafael Kubelik formed a new one, apparently much closer to what the composer intended. Charles Mackerras and John Tyrrell developed a rendition that was declared the original version which then was used for the 1980 Decca recording of the work led by Mackerras. In 2017 John Tyrrell edited and published a new critical edition of the opera, and that is this version, recorded in Munich. I should add that Mackerras was instrumental in popularizing Janáček’s operas in the last quarter of the 20th century, with many performances and recordings of them.

The theme of From the House of the Dead is isolation. The opera is set in a mid-nineteenth century Tsarist pententiary in Siberia. Janáček’s libretto is based on Dostoyevsky's novel of the same name, which is also sometimes published under the title Notes From the House of the Dead. Dostoyevsky did not need to draw on his imagination alone to describe the harsh prison conditions and behavior of the hapless but dangerous inmates in his novel: he spent four miserable years at a Siberian prison camp. Some of what is in the work is obviously biographical.

The opera does not have a conventional plot. It examines, among other things, the past misdeeds of various prisoners, who recall their stories of crime and violence. Luka Kuzmič tells of his killing of an officer during a rebellion he incited. Skuratov recounts his murder of the intended groom to prevent the marriage of Luisa, the German girl that he loved. Shapkin and Šiškov tell their stories as well. Šiškov's Third Act account of his wife Akulka’s murder is the longest of all, giving him as much stage time as anyone else.

The central character in the opera is Alexandr Petrovitch Goryantchikov, who is flogged shortly after his arrival on orders from the prison governor merely because he is a political prisoner. An injured eagle inside the prison becomes a focus of the inmates who, after teasing it, would like to release it, but cannot because its injury prevents it from flying away. Goryantchikov befriends the young Tartar Aljeja, and begins to teach him to read and write. Later on Aljeja is injured in a fight and taken to the prison hospital, where Kuzmič is in his death throes from tuberculosis. Skuratov has gone mad, and Šiškov relates his murder story. Goryantchikov is informed that he has been pardoned and thus bids farewell to the inmates, particularly to Aljeja. The eagle's injuries have healed, and it too is set free.

The way the story is recounted in this staging by Frank Castorf, though subtly satiric and even profound, is both freewheeling and chaotic. For one thing, you often see action in two or more places simultaneously: on center stage of course, but also on a different level of a large structure on the revolving stage centerpiece behind, and often on a large LCD screen suspended from above. A video crew go about the stage filming the action in the prison, which is shown on this screen. Typically, you see the stage happenings from another angle there or, more significantly, you view other scenes (some pre-recorded) that suggest subplots to what occurs on center stage. The action on the screen has no sound and its dialogue appears with embedded German subtitles. The presentation of simultaneous happenings is not necessarily a bad concept if treated properly, but how can one view different scenes and read two sets of subtitles at once (assuming one can understand German)? Further, Aljeja (a mezzo trouser role) is portrayed brilliantly here by Evgeniya Sotnikova, but she is also cast as the injured eagle. In Act One, she is wearing long feathers and sexy attire in both roles!

The story can be viewed as having several time periods: there are esoteric references in the opera to events and personages in post-Dostoyevsky Russian history. The caged rabbits, for example, refer to Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who raised rabbits during his Mexican exile. Further, some costuming suggests a contemporary time. To cite just one example, upon his departure Goryantchikov is given what appears to be a Nike jacket. Beyond this, familiar symbols are used in this production, such as a Pepsi sign atop a tower on the revolving stage structure and a B-movie poster on a wall or fence. Their meanings here is a bit inscrutable except as references to the commercialism of the free world outside. There are two rather seductive, scantily clad female characters used in the Second Act for the prisoners’ staging of a pantomime about an unfaithful wife. (Janáček’s cast calls for a lone prostitute.) Not surprisingly, there are simulated sex acts but also a bizarre kind of humor in this sequence. While some of the set designs are odd, they serve Castorf’s purposes well, and lighting and other aspects of the production are also quite fine.

I could cite much more oddity and complexity here, but I think I have given the reader a good idea of what is in this production. In the end, the problem is, when you try to pack so much action, satire and obscure commentary into a staging of this or any opera, how can you expect a viewer to follow all the simultaneous happenings and symbolism? But then, I suppose one can argue that each time you replay this recording you can notice something new or discover a different way to interpret the happenings. True, and in the end, despite some misgivings, one must concede Castorf’s account of Janáček’s final masterpiece is effective on its own somewhat vexing terms.

One has no misgivings, however, about the performances. The singing is excellent. Bo Skovhus is brilliant: his Third Act account of Šiškov’s killing is arguably the dramatic highlight of the opera. Peter Rose as Gorjančikov and Evgeniya Sotnikova as Aljeja are also thoroughly compelling in their difficult roles. Janáček’s music is not easy to sing, not least because its Czech language is unfamiliar to most opera singers, but this cast, featuring many non-Czechs, turn in fine, committed performances right down to the smallest roles.

Simone Young and the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra deliver a vital, spirited performance of the music, and the chorus turns in splendid work as well. Conductor Young employs very lively but not hasty tempos, and her deft phrasing otherwise captures the pointed character of Janáček’s imaginative writing. She fully grasps his style and draws the most from this fine score. The sound reproduction, picture clarity, and especially the camera work are all excellent. There is only one other video recording of this opera, the Pierre Boulez-led effort on DG. I have not seen it but understand it has received fine reviews. Whatever the case with the competition, this effort on Bel Air Classiques has outstanding performances on the musical side of things; on the production end there is Frank Castorf’s bold and controversial take on the work. While admittedly I find his contribution challenging in certain respects, it is overall a success, making this a high priority acquisition for Janáček’s many admirers.

Robert Cummings



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