DeadLeoš Janáček - From the House of the Dead

Aix-en-Provence, 2007 | Pierre Boulez, Patrice Chéreau, Olaf Bär, Eric Stokloßa, Steron Margita, John Mark Ainsley, Jan Galla, Peter Hoare, Gerd Srochowski | Deutsche Grammophon

Based on Dostoevsky’s novel Memoirs from the House of the Dead, which recounts many of the author’s own experiences as a prisoner in a Siberian Prison Camp, Janáček’s final opera, first performed in 1930, is inevitably a bleak affair. But like the original work that it is based on, the point of showing such misery and injustice is to highlight all the more the uplifting moments of human compassion that endures there which is never fully extinguished. That’s difficult to bring out of a group of hardened men, many of whom indeed are criminals and murderers, but it’s a work that is all the stronger for meeting this challenge, and conducted by Pierre Boulez and directed for the stage by Patrice Chéreau (the team behind the famous Centenary Wagner Ring Cycle), those qualities are superbly and sympatherically elicited from the singing, the staging and Janáček’s remarkable composition.

Of all Janáček’s work, From the House of the Dead is one that is rarely performed, principally because its difficult subject and its treatment lack a conventional narrative structure or resolution, to such an extent that the opera was considered incomplete at the time of the composer’s death. Even the orchestration itself is sparse, as if not fully scored, but Janáček’s music – so associated with rhythms of speech – has evolved here, finding harsh new sounds to suit its subject, using percussion, blocks, rattling chains and tolling bells, and integrating them into the fabic of a powerful score than needs no further elaboration. The dark tone that Janáček explores here points towards Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and, particularly in its prison setting, Weinberg’s recently rediscovered The Passenger.

Patrice Chéreau’s staging and direction doesn’t so much emphasise the dark setting, as fully envision what is already there in the score and the libretto. Considering Chéreau’s background, it’s entirely theatrical in this respect, the stark high grey walls that enclose the men in Act 1, the improvised stage in Act 2 and the hospital ward of Act 3, the blue-grey-brown tones all perfectly geared towards literal as well as metaphorical representation of the prison. Chéreau doesn’t point towards any specific cultural or political reading, but focuses on the human drama, on the nature of men, the stories they tell each other and the personalities that they reveal. By extension, this also sheds light on the deeper human behaviours that the situation brings out – the basic human needs for equality and freedom, the urge to communicate, the need for a sense of worth, respect and attention that, when denied, can be expressed in assertion of authority and in violent behaviour.

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If the direction does everything to give the best possible staging for the opera and its themes – from the sense of movement and positioning of figures right through to the superb lighting of the stage – everything about the actual performance of this Aix-en-Provence production of From the House of the Dead is likewise as good as it could be. Pierre Boulez conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra through a magnificent performance of a remarkable score (from Sir Charles Mackerras and John Tyrell’s critical edition) that flawlessly captures tone, character and nuance for the situation as well as the characters. The singing is of an exceptionally high standard, not just for the actual singing, but the acting performances that Chéreau teases out of each member of the cast. This is as good a performance as you could possibly hope for of this particular opera.

On DVD, the performance at Aix comes across quite well. The NTSC resolution isn’t the best, and it can look a little blurry in movement, with hand-held camera inserts being used as an extra dimension to the live performance – but it fully captures the sense of the staging. The audio mixes in LPCM stereo and DTS 5.1 are wonderful, both of them exhibiting an impressive level of detail and a lovely tone. The DVD also has a 48-minute Making Of featurette, filmed entirely behind-the-scenes, following the rehearsals without any formal interviews.