From the House of the Dead at the MET

The libretto is
taken from Dostoevsky’s plotless collection of “notes” from
his years in a Siberian prison camp, anecdotes and word-pictures of the tedium
and occasional horror and joy of that existence, lacking immediate effect but
packing cumulative punch. Jan·ček, naturally, picked and chose among
these brief tales, and there is no single character, single drama with which he
(or we) identify or follow: his protagonist is humanity, guilty, often
criminally guilty, but never to be denied the sympathy and pity Jan·ček
had earlier so sublimely evoked for Jenufa, her murderous stepmother and her
two selfish lovers.

There being no real story in the opera, the men sing mostly of nostalgia or
of the crimes that got them into trouble, and Jan·ček’s score
provides soaring, lyrical, nostalgic themes to mitigate the harsh, percussive,
maddening rhythmic passages. This is the same method he had used to tell the
stories of Jenufa and Katya Kabanova, but both those stories
had heroines we could follow with bated breath. We know none of the men in
From the House of the Dead nearly so well, and our pity is hampered by
that queasy unknowing: what other side of their character are they concealing?
The beautiful Daghestani boy, Alyeya, for example, who charms us with his wish
to learn to read, took part in a murderous attack on a peaceful Armenian
caravan, though Jan·ček leaves that story out. The message appears to be:
Whatever they have done, and whether they deserve punishment or not, they are
your fellow human beings and you will pity them, empathize with them. It is a
very humane message, and relevant to every age.

But that very absence of specificity makes the opera difficult to stage
except on intimate terms, and the enormous Met is not intimate. In an attempt
to deal with this, Alyeya is always kept downstage right so we can remember who
he is, and titles, in addition to appearing on the backs of the seats in front
of us, are projected here and there on the stage — fine for the
far-sighted, a nuisance for others, annoying to those who would like to
concentrate on the score, and infuriating when (as happened several times
opening night) the wrong title is projected too soon. It is doubtful that a
tale at once so diffuse and so intimate could have been presented successfully
at the Met at all without some sort of titling — the City Opera’s
production a quarter century ago was a tedious failure, not played very well
— but the stage pictures on this occasion, though performed with agility,
did not always focus attention where it might have brought comprehension.

Or was my discomfort exactly the effect director Patrice ChÈreau, in his
company debut (greeted with standing ovation, as were the cast and orchestra),
wished to produce? ChÈreau is perhaps of the school that does not wish to
comfort but disturb with opera, and this is an opera not intended to provide
comfort. In that light, the decision to perform it in one intermissionless
hour-and-a-half act is the proper one, musically and dramatically.

Willard White (kneeling) as Alexander Petrovich Gorianchikov in a scene from Act I of Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead,” with actors (left to right) Carlton Tanis, Collin McGee, and Marty Keiser.

It might be instructive to compare From the House of the Dead to
Beethoven’s Fidelio. The operas have in common their setting in
a prison full of not-quite-hopeless men (all the prisoners in both operas are
men) justly or unjustly convicted but in either case denied a human existence
by the condemnation and willful ignorance of the society to which they once
belonged. These are men that even societies that take pride in their commitment
to personal freedom can restrict, despise, ignore — as the example of the
enormous prison population of the United States attests.

In Fidelio, the story is frankly ludicrous: a woman disguises
herself as a man in order to seek her husband in the prison system, and is so
convincing (though rarely so to us) that the jailer’s daughter falls in
love with her. But this story from opera buffa sets off the true matter: the
heroism of the woman, her determined success in rescuing her husband. We are
seduced by the opening everyday comic scenes, despite their prison setting and
such reminders of another world as the glorious Prisoners’ Chorus that
another world exists. When we explore the horrors in Act II, the very fact that
such ordinary, even ridiculous people can ennoble themselves to such heights,
can challenge and even conquer tyranny, makes a case for the nobility of the
human race itself, even for us mere spectators. It is sublime theater, with the
symbolic, cathartic effect theater was originally intended to have.

In From the House of the Dead, we are given no such easy key to let
us choose the “right” side, to let us admire the
“heroic” figure. Jan·ček, though born in 1854, is modern in
his outlook, and though he died before the Nazis came to power, he could see
where the century was going. His naturalistic theater shows us not cartoons of
the human soul but (even in fables like Matter Makropoulos) something
much closer to the human bone. His figures are none of them cardboard: In
From the House of the Dead, the sadistic Commandant repents, the
prisoners suffer but they continue their tedious lives. Dostoevsky explains
that they made money by various handicrafts, all (and the tools to make them)
forbidden by the authorities, and sold them in the village nearby for money
immediately spent (lest it be found and confiscated) on vodka, warm clothes or
the local whores. The enormous, forbidding cement walls of Richard
Peduzzi’s set were in fact quite unnecessary in Siberia — if a man
escaped, especially in shackles (the Met cast wear shackles), he had nowhere to
go and soon perished in the wilderness. But the set, if not Siberian, gives us
the right symbol for staging a prison camp, and the spectacular scene change at
the end of Act I (no, I’m not going to spoil it) is a jolt that makes the
prisoners’ endless plight seem especially unnerving.

A scene from Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead” with Heinz Zednik as The Old Prisoner (left, holding eagle), Eric Stoklossa (on ground) as Alyeya and Stefan Margita (right) as Filka Morozov.

The staging puzzled me because it was unclear which character was which, or
to remember him from earlier moments — costumes did not help, and faces
were vague from Row W, an effect that can only have been enhanced upstairs.
Too, the “mimes” the prisoners put on in Act II for an audience of
visiting townsfolk seemed not at all the gently ironic variations on themes of
obsession that such men might provide for respectable visitors, but heavily,
brutally sexualized for the benefit of the twenty-first-century operagoer
instead. It was not believable. If the men are capable of such ironic
creativity, it puts their agony elsewhere in question. On four hours’
sleep a night, sleeping on planks with thirty other men (Dostoevsky’s
description), would such rampant sexuality survive?

On the musical side, under the superb direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen, in his
house debut, the Metropolitan Orchestra made a case for this work as an organic
unity, its bitter percussion and soaring lyricism tautly held in a theatrically
fulfilling symphony. This was music-making to cherish on every level, every
rhythm crisp, every melody reaching for our heart and falling short only
because it was in chains. Jan·ček’s humanity has never been more
joyously in evidence. My desire to go to this production again had little to do
with the staging and everything — besides Jan·ček’s own fine
work — to do with Salonen and the Met Orchestra, and a yearning to hear
such music again.

The singers were all able and so drawn into the acting of the piece that
they seemed to take few “vocal” moments — they came across as
presenting “conversational” drama. Willard White and Eric Stoklossa
brought poignance to Gorianchikov’s tutoring of Alyeya — it is an
interesting point, one neither Dostoevsky nor Jan·ček underlines, that
when Alyeya is asked what miracle of Jesus he most admires, he mentions the
tale of Jesus molding a clay bird and having it come to life and fly away
— which connects in the opera to the image of an injured eagle, cared for
by the prisoners and liberated in the concluding image. Although Alyeya is
being taught to read with the Gospels, that story is not to be found there, but
comes from the Koran, where Jesus is also an honored prophet; Alyeya, who is
Muslim, heard it back home in Daghestan and never forgot it. Vladimir Ognovenko
was effective as an apologetic, drunken, brutal Commandant, Kurt Streit an
impressive Skuratov, and Kelly Cae Hogan displayed some wonderful contralto
lines as a prostitute.

The star turn of the evening — which does not play as a star
turn — belongs to Peter Mattei as Shishkov, so fine a singer one regrets
when he turns to such unlyrical roles, so fine an actor that one hardly notices
how brilliantly he is singing. Shishkov calls to mind the Yugoslav statesman
Milovan Djilas’s comparison of Serbs and Russians — “Serbs
are simple Slavs; a Serb will kill you. Russians are complex Slavs; a Russian
will kill you and then weep.” He is haunted by the progression of evil
deeds that led to his luckless marriage to the woman he then murdered —
too, the man has obviously been drinking, bad vodka presumably — and his
story, which occupies most of the last scene of the opera, holds us riveted as
if Jan·ček had made that story into an opera, as he easily might
have done. There is activity all about the stage during this narration, behind
and around Mattei and in the high reaches of the monstrous set, but he never
loses our attention for an instant, and his singing is as wonderful as his

John Yohalem

image_description=Peter Mattei as Shishkov [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
product_title=Leoš Jan·ček: From the House of the Dead
product_by=Filka Morozov: Stefan Margita; Skuratov: Kurt Streit; Shapkin: Peter Hoare; Shishkov: Peter Mattei; Gorianchikov: Willard White; Alyeya: Eric Stoklossa; Commandant: Vladimir Ognovenko; Prostitute: Kelly Cae Hogan. Production by Patrice ChÈreau. Chorus and orchestra of the Met, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Performance of November 12.
product_id=Above: Peter Mattei as Shishkov

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera