ALIVE AFTER “FROM THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD”

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After I watched the Munich production of Leoš Janáček’s final opera, From the House of the Dead, now available on video from Bel Air, I went to my reliable guilty pleasure, You Tube to find some points of comparison between this Bayerische Staatsoper mounting and any previous staging, possibly one originating on this side of the Atlantic.

All that You Tube could come up with were a few video games bearing the same title. But since both Janacek’s take on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s original and this particular production are as far removed from the Russian original as the Siberia which provides the setting for the opera is from us, I decided instead to have a look at Dostoyevsky’s novella itself.

Written in 1861 by Dostoyevsky, a literary giant who himself spent time in a Siberian prison camp, the work is a harrowing and rambling tale about a man imprisoned in 19th century Russia for murdering his wife. Why Janacek thought that this  yarn of sadness and suffering had the makings of an opera evades me. But write it he did, after having under his composer’s belt two great lyric dramas: Jenůfa and Káťa Kabanová.

But mind you, Jenůfa with its story about love against all odds and at all costs offers, as the gloomier Káťa Kabanová does a cathartic ending that unfortunately the nearly all-male From the House of the Dead is sorely lacking. Janacek’s unrelenting tale of cruelty among caged men offers little relief of any sort throughout its nearly two-hours, intermission-less duration. After yet one more scene of physical and mental abuse I found myself tempted to turn off my computer. But I persevered.

Frank Castorf’s production is quintessential Eurotrash Regietheater incarnate. We get interminable dumb-shows, as a sort of visual-dramatic interludes out of which one cannot make heads or tails. We get snippets of German, Spanish, Russian spoken, sung, and projected both on stage screens and on the video version I watched, in that case competing with the subtitles for those of us not fluent in Czech, which provides nearly 90% of the sung text.

We get video all over the place: video cameramen walking around among the singers, video images counterpointing though never ever supporting or explicating what is happening on stage. The costuming is a hodge-podge of periods, complete with incarcerated men wearing furs, others in drag. A ballerina portrays the metaphorical wounded eagle of the original tale, reducing the proceedings to silliness.

The cast and the marvelous Simone Young in the pit leading the superb Bayerische Staatsoper orchestra must be saluted for their endurance and for maintaining their dignity in spite of all the directorial nonsense. Among the more than twenty named roles, veteran bass Peter Rose is a standout, as is the Czech dramatic tenor Aleš Briscein, who manages to make his mother tongue, beset as it is with consonant clusters sound lyrical, when not dealing with the parlando setting of much of the text.

After a brief trial and on the evidence of this mess I would condemn the production’s director to a few months in a Siberian camp for egocentric stage directors, and exonerate everyone else for merely trying.

Rafael de Acha     http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

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