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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
From the House of the Dead, Opera in three acts. (1927)
Alexander Petrovič Gorjančikov: Peter Rose
Aljeja/Eagle: Evgeniya Sotnikova
Luka Kuzmič (Filka Morozov): Aleš Briscein
Skuratov: Charles Workman
Siškov:  Bo Skovhus
Prison Governor: Christian Rieger
Nikita, (Big Prisoner): Manuel Günther
Small Prisoner: Tim Kuypers
Old Prisoner: Ulrich Ress
Cook (a prisoner): Boris Prýgl
Priest: Peter Lobert
Čekunov: Johannes Kammler
Šapkin: Kevin Conners
Bavarian State Opera Chorus/Sören Eckhoff
Bavarian State Orchestra/Simone Young
rec. live, May 2018, Bavarian State Opera, Munich
Stage Direction: Frank Castore, Sets Design: Aleksandar Denić,
Costume Design: Adriana Braga Peretzki, Lighting Design: Rainer Casper
Subtitles in English, French, German, Korean, Japanese
Video 1BD25 Full HD colour 16:9, Audio PCM 2.0 & DTS Master Audio 5.1
Region Code A,B,C
BELAIR CLASSIQUES Blu-ray BAC573 [97 mins]

The libretto for this, the last of Janacek’s operas, is his own translation from the Russian original being Dostoevsky’s novel of more-or-less the same name. Its subject is life in a Siberian prison camp, modelled on the one in which the author himself had been confined as a political prisoner for the four years from 1849. He had been sentenced to death for belonging to a literary group that discussed writings that were critical of the Tsarist regime, but his sentence was commuted at the last moment. Following his imprisonment, he had to serve six years as a conscript in the army. These years spanned the reigns of Tsar Nicholas I and Alexander II, and it should be remembered that Russia was a backward country with an oppressive church and aristocracy, and in which serfdom existed until 1861.

The set in this production consists of a rotating model of the camp. Strangely, a neon sign of Pepsi sits below a tower of searchlights. In addition, a gilded model of the Russian Imperial eagle is fixed to the roof, and presumably we are invited to ponder why the director considered the anachronous Pepsi sign to be a suitable neighbour for the imperial eagle.

The rotating camp is a good idea because it allows the cast to occupy different spaces as and when the set revolves, for example we see the prisoners behind barbed wire or, alternatively, mostly in front of the main building.  However, it also allows images of what is happening behind or inside the circular set to be displayed on a video screen that is fixed to the top of the set. This is distracting in the extreme, because we see the flogging of Goryančikov, (normally carried out offstage) whilst the main action, not involving him, is going at the set front. In addition, offstage spoken dialog (not in the libretto) is sometimes displayed as subtitles on the video screen. This makes life difficult for the viewer, who is trying to follow the subtitled words of the principals as well as the words displayed on the video, which, to make matters worse, are not always translated from the German. In fact, the revolving stage allows so much blood-soaked action to be displayed on the screen, that there is a danger that the viewer will be inclined to avert his or her eyes.

The brutal camp governor is initially dressed in a long leather greatcoat, which is very much like the garment worn by German WW2 Officers. Presumably this likeness is intentional. The director has taken some liberties with the character of Aljeja, a breeches role, by having a dialog (not in the libretto) between Goryančikov and Aljeja take place offstage, but on the video screen, before either character makes his formal entrance. At first, I was baffled by this, because Evgeniya Sotnikova as Aljeja, also takes the non-singing part of the wounded eagle, and as such is dressed in a frilly bikini and exotic long multicoloured feathers and crown-like headdress that would not disgrace a bird of paradise. At that point I didn’t realise the role duality, although I suppose that I might have done since the viewer is shown, via the video screen, offstage action involving Goryančikov attempting to make love to the exotically costumed Aljeja/eagle. I must also confess to being baffled by the appearance of Bo Skovhus (Siškov) during the first two acts: he is dressed in a red feathery décolletage and a sort of transparent circular crinoline, over white tights with high heels. In the third act where Siškov has a major role, he is appropriately costumed.

During the orchestral prelude to Act Two, the camp governor appears on the video screen indulging in a rant about something. I’m unable to say what the subject is, because it is not part of Janacek’s libretto, and the subtitles that appear on the video screen are in German. His image is occasionally replaced by grotesque cartoon figures of skeletons, which remind me of medieval woodcuts. Aljeja appears, this time dressed in the same drab prison clothes as the rest of the cast. During the prisoners’ acting of short plays for their amusement, one of the most impactive and rather impressive flights of costume imagination occurs when the demons appear for the Don Juan episode. They are dressed in black, skin-tight costumes that have white skeletons painted on them, and also wear skull masks and vibrantly coloured accessories such as headdresses, frilly ruffles and collars. In fact, their appearance very much reminded me of the sort of voodoo costumes that can be found on the internet as Halloween garb.

The third act contains a similar mix of on-stage action and distracting off-stage video. Once again, Aljeja has to briefly appear as the exotically plumed eagle, but this time the plumes are briefly donned in order that Aljeja may pass them over to a group of prisoners who release the eagle.

I have said little about the actual performances, and so I must say how good the principals are as actors. This applies to Bo Skovhus as Siškov, Peter Rose as Gorjančikov, Christian Rieger (camp governor), Callum Thorpe (Don Juan), Aleš Briscein (luka) and particularly to the dramatic virtuosity of Charles Workman as Skuratov.

Vocally, bass Peter Rose conveys really well the plight of the aristocratic Gorjančikov, who is horrified to be in the company of such low-life, and his innocence is apparent. It is a pity that back-stage lust for Aljeja has to be made so distractingly plain. Tenor Aleš Briscein’s is believable as the rough Luka, and no doubt he coped with the Czech language, being a native of the country. As I mentioned above, Charles Workman as Skuratov has to play a demented prisoner, driven mad by the memories of his girlfriend and the murder he committed. As well as dealing splendidly with the almost manic vocal line, he prances dementedly around the stage, convincing this viewer that the man’s dreadful experiences have driven him over the edge. Finally, in the last act, Bo Skovhus as Siškov splendidly copes with the anarchic changes of mood that Janacek’s inimitable musical style provides.

I don’t think that there is a weak member in the cast, and they are supported by the excellent playing of the Bavarian State Orchestra under Simone Young. The stage is well lit, providing an excellent view of the imaginative rotating prisoner camp, and the sound quality is excellent. It is a pity that the viewing experience is disrupted by the presence of the on-stage screen showing, unnecessarily in my opinion, back-stage action with untranslated German sub-titles. The main sub-titles are translated, as one would expect.

Because of its peculiarities, I find it difficult to recommend this DVD, except for those who are familiar with the opera and want to experience a rather outré production.

Jim Westhead

Previous review: Robert Cummings

Performance & Disc details
Alexander Petrovič Gorjančikov: Peter Rose
Aljeja/Eagle: Evgeniya Sotnikova
Luka Kuzmič (Filka Morozov): Aleš Briscein
Skuratov: Charles Workman
Siškov:  Bo Skovhus
Prison Governor: Christian Rieger
Nikita, (Big Prisoner): Manuel Günther
Small Prisoner: Tim Kuypers
Old Prisoner: Ulrich Ress
Cook (a prisoner): Boris Prýgl
Priest: Peter Lobert
Čekunov: Johannes Kammler
Šapkin: Kevin Conners
Stage Direction: Frank Castore, Sets Design: Aleksandar Denić,
Costume Design: Adriana Braga Peretzki, Lighting Design: Rainer Casper
Subtitles in English, French, German, Korean, Japanese
Video 1BD25 Full HD colour 16:9, Audio PCM 2.0 & DTS Master Audio 5.1
Region Code A,B,C



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