From the House of the Dead, Janàcek

Metropolitan Opera

21st November, 2009

Outsider Art

Patrice Chérau’s bold and affecting new staging of Janàcek’s little-known prison drama, From the House of the Dead, opens with a fitting symbolic image: out of the darkness, the flame of a cigarette lighter briefly illumines a shuffling mass of men. Surely this references the dying composer’s note on the piece, found posthumously in his pocket: “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.” That this spark comes in the form of a furtive cigarette, that token of self-destructive pleasure, makes it all the more poignant.

The entire opera takes place in and around a prison, and the structure of the work seems less typically operatic and more Anna Deavere Smith: we get to know the prisoners individually (with none as protagonist) as, one after the other, they tell each other the stories of the crimes they have committed. In this way the opera, written in 1928, feels very modern, almost documentary in form. The “action”, for the most part, has already happened, in memory (or in imagination, in the form of the folk-tales the prisoners stage).

Photos by: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The themes of the men’s criminal motives emerge quickly enough: jealousy, humiliation, honor. Almost all of the stories involve an idealized/vilified woman at their centers. Janacek was right not to include any female voices (and only one female, a prostitute) in his drama, because what he portrays is a world out of balance, a world overrun with male power. The essence of the life force surging through the opera is purely and explicitly sexual and male, a male need for dominance couched as “honor”. We are presented with the brutality of a society in which women are mere objects to possess, in which parents murder their own daughters in “honor killings”. Sadly, this too strikes a contemporary chord. Chérau and Thierry Thieû Niang’s raw, physical staging effectively kept the energy teetering on the edge of (sexual) violence always.

The relentless momentum of Janacek’s score was expertly propelled by Maestro Salonen, under whose baton the orchestra pulsed, shimmered, and spun its way through the opera, never overbalancing the singers. The effect was that of a kettle brought to boil with its lid on, simmering away and releasing bursts of hot steam now and then.

The singing-actors gave enormous amounts of energy throughout. At times it even felt like too much energy; one expects prisoners to be more resigned, shut-off in their degradation. (Vladimir Ognovenko, as the drunken Commandant guard, struck the right note of weary indifference). Exciting as it was, I wondered at times if Chérau could have let the music do more of the telling with the staging less demonstrative. On the other hand, the chief characters were not meant to be hardened career criminals with deadened spirits, and the prison camp couldn’t approach one of our modern “Supermax” facilities in its dehumanizing horrors. How many prisons today would allow for visits by prostitutes, or tea time, theater night? The perfect costuming (by Caroline de Vivaise) also allowed for some individuality among the prisoners, as she chose to clothe them in soiled Salvation Army leftovers instead of uniforms, more refugee camp than Sing Sing.

All of the soloists gave committed, specific, and memorable performances, making for an impressive ensemble. Rich-voiced Willard White made a proud Gorianchikov, noble in his suffering; Stefan Margita was an animated and earthy Luka. Kurt Streit, as the tortured Skuratov, was forgiven for a somewhat pinched top as it seemed expressive of his anguish. His howls to his lost “Luisa” pierced the soul like a wolf’s cry in the night. Eric Stoklossa, with a fresh, spinning tone and boyish looks, made a heartbreaking young Yelya; and Peter Mattei was a terrifying Shishkov, who could only have been more convincing as the wife-beater-turned-murderer if his voice weren’t so plummy and gorgeous.

Do we sympathize with the criminals? Of course we do, because Janacek has done his job of rendering them fully human. I don’t know if I agree with the director’s program note that there is indeed the presence of hope in the opera; to me it felt more like grace. The hope of grace? The longing to feel some form of love, if never again from a woman, then from God? The opening scene of the prisoners lining up for their cups of water and slop was both Eucharistic and Oliver Twist-like, their bodies wriggling boyishly with impatience and anticipation. But Where is Love?

In this world, it is not Love that falls from skies above, but trash: a great big shocking heap of it descends in Act II, changing the scene to the site of the prisoners’ clean-up work duty outside the facility’s walls. Besides the fact that trash is apparently ubiquitous in Siberia (the original setting of the story), there was something confrontationally honest about the juxtaposition of society’s material and human waste. Both are big problems that we prefer not to think about too much. Landfills and prisons: Not In My Back Yard.

But perhaps the most potent symbol in the production was that of the wounded eagle that is to have flown inside the compound, that the prisoners heal and then release. The director made the wise choice of forgoing the use of a “real” eagle, instead having the prisoners create a kind of outsider-art eagle out of found objects. Some scraps of cardboard, duct-taped together, animated by nothing more than imagination and longing.

Out of the forgotten and discarded, life.

Bottom line: The sparks fly in yet another Janacek masterpiece.


Georges Briscot


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Production Credits

New Production at The Metropolitan Opera

Conductor - Esa-Pekka Salonen
Director - Patrice Chérau
Associate Director - Thierry Thieû Niang
Set Design - Richard Peduzzi
Costumes - Caroline de Vivaise
Lighting - Bertrand Couderc


Gorianchikov - Willard White
Alyeya - Eric Stoklossa
Luka Kuzmich - Stefan Margita
Commandant - Vladimir Ognovenko
Skuratov - Kurt Streit
Chekunov - Jeffrey Wells
Drunken Prisoner - Adam Klein
The Priest - John Cheek
Shapkin - Peter Hoare
Shishkov - Peter Mattei