Images: Monika Rittershaus (from the original, 2011 staging)
Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov – Tom Fox
Aljeja – Eric Stoklossa
Luka Kuzmič (or Filka Morozov) – Štefan Margita
Skuratov – Ladislav Elgr
Siškov, Guard – Pavlo Hunka
Prison Governor – Jiří Sulženko
Big Prisoner – Peter Straka
Small Prisoner – Vladimír Chmelo
Elderly Prisoner – Heinz Zednik
Cook, Blacksmith – Maximilian Krummen
Priest – Arttu Kataja
Cekunov – Ján Galla
Drunk Prisoner – Stephen Chambers
Sapkin – Peter Hoare
Kedril – Marian Pavlovič
Don Juan, The Brahmin – Ales Jenis
Young Prisoner – Olivier Dumait
Prostitute – Eva Vogel
Cerevin, Guard – Stephan Rügamer
Patrice Chéreau (director)
Peter McClintock (revival director)
Richard Peduzzi (set designs)
Caroline de Vivaise (costumes)
Bertrand Couderc (lighting, video)
Chorus of the Berlin State Opera (chorus master: Martin Wright)
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)
Let me find something to complain about. The typing of such a review is a nightmare: all those diacriticals, especially for someone who knows not a word of Czech. That would be it, really. Two of my abiding musical regrets are not having seen the production of Moses und Aron, conducted by Pierre Boulez at my very first Salzburg Festival (I opted for The Marriage of Figaro instead) and not having seen this production of From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého Domu) when it was first staged, again conducted by Boulez. Neither of those omissions can be put right, of course, but at least I have managed to see my first and – again, alas – doubtless last opera production by Patrice Chéreau in the theatre. (That is, unless I somehow manage to travel to New York to see his valedictory offering, Elektra.)
Perhaps the ultimate joy – should that not be an utterly misplaced word with respect to this opera – of this production is to see something that is so well thought out, so well executed, so clearly what it intends to be and what an operatic staging should be, that one experiences almost anew the greatness of genre and work, in themselves and also in performance. Any element of ‘opera house routine’ is banished, likewise any idiotic directorial clichés and incoherences. (The contrast with Christof Loy’s self-regarding assault on Tristan earlier this month could hardly be greater.) Chéreau trusts the work, and it therefore trusts him, permitting re-creative freedom as opposed to mere licence. Realism is both apparent and yet called into question or extended, according to taste. By that, I mean that the prisoners are clearly prisoners, as we should expect to see them; the prison is clearly a prison as we should expect to see it, the behaviour and interaction of the prisoners is so clearly plausible that we might actually be there, and yet there is no delimitation. This could be anywhere, and even the period is unclear – without a hint of post-modernist incongruity. There is plenty of action to watch, more doubtless than one can take in from a single viewing, and yet none of it is gratuitous, none of it distracts. We witness the faithful creation and development of a world we can imagine, rightly or wrongly, as if that matters, Janáček himself creating when sketching and developing his opera from Dostoevsky. Richard Peduzzi’s fine set designs are likewise sufficiently realistic and sufficiently abstract, so much part of the action that one cannot conceive of ‘production’ and ‘designs’ separately. (My mind inevitably went back to the triumph of the Centenary Ring, one of the few DVD opera stagings I am happy to watch again and again.)
The coup de theatre, for Chéreau is nothing if not a man of the theatre, comes at the end of the first act, in which a collapse both physical, intellectual, and metaphysical arises, rubbish falling from above – but is there even an Above in a sense Dostoevsky would have understood? – to create pointless ‘work’ for the prisoners thereafter. Is there a hint that this debris might relate to the learning of books, and to the horror of their destruction in authoritarian societies? I felt so, but perhaps that was just my own reading; either way, Chéreau’s staging and its exemplary revival under Peter McClintock allow us the openness of our own interpretations, again up to a point and without the reactionary chaos of ‘anything goes’. From the House of the Dead has been criticised as having little in the way of plot, even little in the way of ‘opera’. It is surely the composer’s most radical work – which is saying something. Chéreau’s production enables the musical performance to examine and to project its dramatic dialectic between individual character and collectivity, and to show not only its radicalism but also the deep humanity which ultimately places it decisively in the tradition of his earlier works.
That relationship between individual and choral collective was powerfully, indeed unforgettably, achieved by the artists themselves on stage. It is, more than usual, not only invidious but more or less impossible to single out members of the cast in such a work and performance. However, the men to whom Janáček more or less briefly grants prominence might usefully be mentioned. Tom Fox’s Alexandr Petrovič seemed just as the composer might have thought of him: noble, ‘different’, compassionate. The role of Aljeja, the young Tatar, was taken by the tenor, Eric Stoklossa, rather than the more usual mezzo. Stoklossa nevertheless conveyed the character’s youth and vulnerability, without a hint of sacrifice to the integrity of musical delivery. The brutality of the third-act monologue and the horror of its outcome were conveyed powerfully, again with just the right balance between the specific and the universal, by Štefan Margita’s Filka and Pavlo Hunka’s Šiškov. Laidslav Elgr’s Skuratov offered a subtle development of character the work’s detractors would have one believe never present, again perfectly in keeping with Chéreau’s overall vision. Ales Jinis made a strong impression indeed as the prisoner taking the roles of Don Juan and the Brahmin in the second-act plays, his charisma hinting at a homoeroticism which may or may not be ‘there’ in work and setting (irrespective of intention?) The presentation of those two plays was exemplary throughout, all concerned pulling off the trick of convincing portrayal of amateur dramatics with knowledge of the darker forces at work. In that sense, the resentful violence of Vladimír Chmelo Small Prisoner and the frail wisdom of Heinz Zednik’s Elderly Prisoner framed the action and its parameters tellingly.
Sir Simon Rattle showed himself at his curtain call deeply appreciative of the playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin. Rightly so, for theirs was playing at a level one might have expected them to reserve for Daniel Barenboim. Initially I wondered whether the sound were a little too ‘Romantic’, almost Brahmsian (ironically, given Rattle’s own rather odd way with Brahms). But I rightly doubted my doubts and was quite won over; for one thing, this ‘old German’ sound is arguably very close to what Janáček himself would have heard and had in mind. One heard Wagner, Strauss, Debussy, even perhaps the Second Viennese School; and yes, one heard Janáček. Rhythms were tight and musically generative, but this was a different, less overtly modernistic composer than one sometimes hears. There is room for several Janáčeks, of course, or rather several manifestations, each shedding light upon the other. Indeed, we may then hear the intimate relationship between ‘late Romanticism’ – itself a deeply problematical concept, which often obscures as much as it enlightens – and ‘modernism’, ‘German’ and ‘Czech’. The final march chilled as it told of a compassion Janáček manages to imply as dialectically responsive to its Fatal inhumanity.
Last but certainly not least, indeed arguably foremost, was the contribution of the chorus. Its delivery of words and music, its portrayal of individual and collective, its situation as background and foreground, its clear commitment to work and performance: all of these and more were exemplary throughout. Janáček’s conception of this strange, visionary work emerged in disconcerting triumph. The ultimate test was passed: however difficult the message, I wanted to see it again immediately.