MET OPERA: Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead.” Listen Live on Real Player at 8pm on Nov. 12.

From the House of the Dead
Approximate running time 1 hrs. 33 min.

With this new production, voted Europe’s best opera staging for 2007, one of opera’s great visionaries makes his Met debut. Patrice Chéreau, renowned for his legendary centennialRing cycle at Bayreuth, directs Janácek’s drama of human resilience inside a Russian prison. “The penal camp is a different society, parallel to ours, but there are many similarities between the two,” Chéreau declares. “Power, relationships, humiliation, passion—all those things exist in both worlds.” Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen also makes his Met debut, and Peter Mattei leads the ensemble cast.  A production of the Metropolitan Opera and the Wiener Festwochen, in co-production with Holland Festival, Amsterdam; the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence; and Teatro alla Scala, Milan.


Libretto by the composer, based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky
World premiere: Brno, National Theater, April 12, 1930

Act I
The yard of a Russian prison camp. Early in the morning, prisoners leave their barracks to wash. An argument breaks out, and there is talk of a new prisoner, a “gentleman” named Gorianchikov. When he arrives, the commandant interrogates him and demands to know what he has been imprisoned for. When Gorianchikov replies that he is a “political prisoner,” the commandant orders him to be flogged. A prisoner plays with a captured eagle whose wing seems to be broken. The others admire its defiance in captivity. The commandant orders a group of prisoners off to work. Among those remaining is Skuratov, who begins singing snatches of a song, annoying Luka. Skuratov dementedly recalls his former life in Moscow, then suddenly breaks into a frenzied dance and collapses. Luka talks about his previous imprisonment for vagrancy. He tells how he killed an officer and was flogged for his offence. The guards drag in Gorianchikov, beaten half to death.

Act II
Some months later, prisoners are working outside the fence of the camp. Gorianchikov asks the young Alyeya about his family and offers to teach him to read and write. The boy eagerly accepts. When the day’s work is done, bells sound from the town, announcing a holiday. Townspeople arrive and a priest gives his blessing. Some men ask Skuratov why he was imprisoned, and he tells how his love for a German girl named Luyza led him to murder the man she was forced to marry. For a long time prisoners have been rehearsing two pantomimes, which they now perform: the first about Don Juan, the second about a miller’s pretty and unfaithful wife. When the show is over, bleak reality returns. A whore passes and a young prisoner goes off with her. Gorianchikov and Alyeya drink tea, which infuriates some of the other prisoners, who think it “gentlemanlike.” One of them hurls a jug at Alyeya, who falls unconscious. Guards rush in to restore order.

Alyeya lies in the prison hospital, delirious with fever and watched over by Gorianchikov. In other parts of the ward are Luka, close to death, and Skuratov, now mad and crying out for Luyza. Another prisoner named Shapkin describes how a police officer, who interrogated him after he was caught in a burglary, almost tore his ears off.

Night falls and silence returns, broken by an old prisoner lamenting that he will never see his children again. Prompted by Cherevin, Shishkov tells the story of his imprisonment: he married a girl named Akulina who allegedly had been dishonored by another man, Filka Morozov. But Filka later revealed that he had been lying about his relationship with the girl, who was in fact innocent. When Akulina confessed to Shishkov that she still loved only Filka, Shishkov killed her. By the end of the tale Luka has died. Only now does Shishkov recognize him as his old enemy, Filka. The body is carried away. A guard arrives with orders for Gorianchikov to follow him.

A few hours later, the commandant, drunk, apologizes to Gorianchikov and tells him that he is free. His chains are knocked off and, desperately, he says goodbye to Alyeya, who will stay in jail. The prisoners release the eagle, whose wing has healed, to shouts of “Freedom!” The guards order them off to work, and prison life goes back to its routine.

Published in: on November 6, 2009 at 4:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Opera Commentary

Opera housePosts in this area are going to focus on individual operas.  I’ll provide different reading sources that are interesting, my own commentary, and historical recordings that are valuable for each.  Then, I encourage discussion about these topics.  Feel free to comment and share your thoughts and ideas.

Published in: on November 6, 2009 at 3:55 pm  Comments (1)  

The chicken or the egg?

Chicken or egg

Prima le parole e dopo la musica, or Prima la musica e dopo le parole?

The other day I was thinking about the fact that opera still has the power to command people, and I don’t just mean in an emotional sense even if it certainly does that too.  What I mean is that people who love opera, “afficionados,” love it and would kill for it; yet, those who hate it, HATE IT!  For those of us who love it, it is infinitely difficult to convert someone from “the other side,” but it is possible, trust me!  So, what is it?  What is this thing called opera, this thing that has been an emotional, social, political vehicle, fully encompassing every artistic genre in order to achieve its premise?

In order to answer this question accordingly, we would have to embark on a serious study of this genre that has existed for centuries, now (sometimes I feel like I’ve been studying it for centuries, as the grey hairs on my head seem to suggest). But, to give a surface scraping answer:  opera is a spectacle of combinatory proportions with the sole purpose of “affecting” the listener beyond the manifestation of words alone.  It is meant to instruct us, frighten us, to arouse us, to seduce us, to make us laugh, to make us cry, and to infect us with the grandeur of life.  Opera, is life.

Of course, it combines music, staging, drama, literature, orchestration, costume, movement, and often dance, but the magical element above all these is the inclusion of the Voice, a most seductive and dangerous being.  As it is, the Voice can represent any number of things and often serves purposes that are not always relegated to singing, per se.  To me, the voice is a metaphysical being (which is why I capitalize it); that is, something that is not entirely of this world, something that descends from a higher realm and does not have a bodily or visceral form.  If that’s true, then how does it come from the body of a singer?  While some might think that the singer embodies the voice, I tend to think that the voice embodies the singer, which is why many singers actually transcend as they’re performing, a wonderful feeling to be sure (and I don’t mean they levitate…that would be scary…or wonderful, who knows?)

Since its inception in Italy around the 1600s (yes, it was us hot-blooded Italians that started this all…mix in some good food and vino and you’ve got a full evening’s entertainment), Italian composers and dramatists recognized the affects of the voice on the body, especially the solo voice, which is why they created “monody.”  Monodic songs (they weren’t really considered arias as of yet), had the power to shift the “affections”.  During the Renaissance, the general thought was that certain vibrations affected the body.  These vibrations, called hot and cold vapours, could either warm or cool down the body temple.  In other words, voices can either turn us on or turn us off.

Interestingly, one of the first imprecations in opera still remains today, whether the words or the music should come first, akin to the proverbial “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Prima le parole e dopo la musica or Prima la musica e dopo le parole? Actually, come to think of it, this was the first thing I ever learned about opera and it’s certainly intriguing that after so many years of studying this genre, I keep returning to this point.  Of course, it depends on the composer.  Would it surprise you to know that Puccini wanted the text to, “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” before he composed the aria?  When you listen to that aria, it seems almost unbelievable that he would manifest the type of melody he did, especially when the words and music seem so homogeneous.  But, then, this is the sign of a great melodist.

There were, however, other composers who wrote melodies first and then decided on the text.  If you were an opera composer, which methodology would you choose?  It’s an interesting topic, for sure, and there have been many studies on whether or not the overall success of an opera is measurable by this question?  Perhaps.  Some food for thought……