Staging The Unspeakable

On The Town | Matthias Wurz | June 2007

Leos Janácek’s final opera The House of the Dead marked an undisputed musical and artistic climax of the Wiener Festwochen programming. When the curtain rose for Act I, the view opened onto a grey concrete-like complex, very much reminiscence of Soviet gulags, so vividly described by Alexander Solzhenitzyn.

The prison complex thus remained the background for the whole performance, shifting some elements only to create other angles and display different locations, such as the prison courtyard or the hospital.

Although the opera is set in a Siberian prison in Tsarist Russia, "prisons, and the relationships within those, are in a way timeless," said Patrice Chéreau, the French film and theater producer who was responsible for the realization of Janácek’s opera.

The musical performance was conducted by French composer Pierre Boulez, who led an excellent cast of soloists; however, the Arnold Schönberg Chorus as well as the Mahler Chamber Orchestra were also among the stars of the evening: Janácek at its best.

The libretto, which the composer wrote himself, is based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Memoirs of the House of the Dead (1862), a semi-autobiographical writing of Dostoevsky’s own imprisonment. For the stage, Janácek extracted some of the main characters’ personal accounts; thus the three-act opera is not built on one continuous plot but rather three touching narratives of prisoners.

The interconnecting character is Alexander Petrovitch, a nobleman whose arrival at the prison at the beginning and release thereof at the end, portrays the full extent of the horror encountered, but also sends a message of hope.

"Why do I go into the dark, frozen cells of criminals with the poet of Crime and Punishment?" noted Janácek. "Into the minds of criminals and there I find a spark of God. You will not wipe away the crimes from their brow, but equally you will not extinguish the spark of God."

In terms of the musical drama, Petrovich, sung by the German Baritone Olaf Bär, is only one of a number of leading characters, however.

Particularly striking and touching was the portrait of Sukartov, whose story of betrayed love and jealous murder we heard in Act I; a part particularly challenging , because Sukartov became insane as a consequence of his action. Displaying that insanity,  a lyrical narrative sung by English tenor John Mark Ainsley was so convincing, both vocally and dramatically, that his performance was one of most heartbreaking of the  evening.

Equally powerful was the narrative in Act III of Shishkov, sung by the German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski, though here the anger about his own actions dominated this portrait. His account led to the finale of the work.

The House of the Dead is Janácek’s last opera; his operatic writing and the orchestral instrumentation are most refined here, though maybe more difficult to grasp with its almost atonal annotations. Like most of Janácek’s operas, the structure of this work is not based on arias versus ensembles, but narratives. The performance was done in Czech and therefore preserved the inherent cultural linguistic idiom.

The difficulty of staging this work, however, lies within the required ensemble, which is made up almost entirely of male performers. The opera is without female leading roles - one prostitute appears in Act II for a few words only - nor does it call for a women’s chorus.

Credit should be given to the Wiener Festwochen for staging such a powerful performance, one the likes of which Vienna has not seen in decades.

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