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  
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