Monday, February 02, 2009

Leos Janacek: "From the House of the Dead"


The opera “From the House of the Dead” (“Z Mrtv√©ho Domu”), composed by Czech composer Leos Janacek and premiered in 1930, two years after his passing, certainly offers an interesting combination of precepts. Netflix offers the Deutsch Grammphon recording with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Arnold Schoenberg Choir conducted by Pierre Boulez, performed at the Grand Theater of Provence, and the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2007, with the film directed by Stephanie Mange. Boulez is often shown conducting the chamber orchestra, The composer adapted the libretto from the episodic novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky “Memoirs from the House of the Dead.”

The music has the typical brassy progressive dissonance familiar with Janacek (even the Sinfonietta) but also has some of the transparency of a lot of Mahler, with some early passages vaguely recalling Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. The work is said to have been not been quite complete and filled in by students. The opera has a prelude that amounts to an overture, a practice less common in the 20th Century.

The story takes place in a Siberian prison camp, and it could almost work as a commentary of Josef Stalin’s gulags, except that it takes place in the mid 19th Century. The stage in bleak (the roof collapsing in one scene, leaving great rubble) and the concept minimalist. A (mechanical) eagle is used as a symbol of “freedom” (and of the czar). (Remember: eagles don’t flock!) The isolation and distance from civilization is part of the oppression. The cast is almost all male, and the plot reaches out into the past for complications. The noble Goryanchikov arrives in the camp and befriends Alyeya, teaching him literacy (recalling the hit film this year “The Reader”). The story develops a love triangle of sorts, but the practicality of prison life comes out (pun intended) in the opera’s middle section, at least in this performance, with some simulated situational homosexuality (in an amount unusual in concert opera), which almost harkens for the abandon of a disco floor. I thought, will someone write a modern “real” opera based on the disco scene? It could be done.

Students of Janacek have also restored a “bleaker” ending that what used to be performed in the past. In this recording, the music sounds upbeat at the very end, as in Janacek’s symphonic works.

John Rockwell has a review in the New York Times of an American premiere, Aug 30 1990, here.

Last Saturday, as I was out and about and heard some of a Met performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto on the car radio, I heard the commentary that many 19th century operas had alternate endings to get past the censors of the days. The version performed ended violently, with loud minor chords. Yet, I remember a outdoor performance at Carter Baron in Washington in the summer of 1962 (a troubled time for me) thinking that it was light and trivial. Not now.

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