Janacek shows life’s grim side in his masterpiece, “From the House of the Dead”.

Several points drew me to really want to listen to this production; namely it is Janacek’s last opera and this is the first time it has been performed at the Met, which makes it a historical performance. The fact that Janacek died before the operas full completion intrigued me (two of his students filled in the missing orchestrations) because I have a particular fetish for last or unfinished works, so From the House of the Dead fits that bill. Also–if it must be known–I love all-male choruses and so this opera that features prominently male voices interested me greatly.  I actually taped it and then listened because I knew I would have to be in the right mood to hear this dark, brooding, but ultimately tender and compassionate work.  I was right to have done that because life ain’t all peaches and roses, especially in a Siberian Prison.

Synopsis:

Siberan prison camp, a winter morning. Goryanchikov, a nobleman, is the latest arrival to the prison camp. He is flogged by the Governor after an interrogation. While at work, the prisoners exchange stories. Luka tells of how he had incited a rebellion and killed an officer in the last prison camp. He describes his flogging as Goryanchikov is dragged in, half dead. Goryanchikov befriends Alyeya, teaching him how to read and write. It is Easter and the prisoners receive a blessing and gifts from charity. A prisoner, infuriated with Aleyeya and Goryanchikov’s friendship, beats Alyeya. Shishkov tells a story of how he loved Akulka, whom his nemesis, Filka, claimed to have dishonoured. After he married Akulka and discovered that she still loved Filka, he killed his wife. Luka dies as the story ends, and Shishkov recognizes him as Filka. Goryanchikov is summoned by the Governor, apologized to, and released, along with the release of a healed eagle.

Aural analysis and review:

Prelude: The prelude was originally conceived as a violin concerto and given successive titles, “Soul,” and “The Wandering of a Little Soul.” For the opera, the use of chains and other percussive elements were added to the instrumentation.  The opening motive of the prelude is developed within the opera.  Here, it originally occurs in Rondo form with a final maestoso episode suggesting a heroic fanfare.  The prelude was expertly handled by the concert-master and the members of the Met Orchestra, especially in the difficult two-against three rhythms and block like harmonies.  Likewise, the sound scape created by conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen is sharp, jarring, exciting and terrifying.  Every layer of the texture was heard individually and as combined within the whole.  The scraping tone of the concert-master’s virtuosic playing emerged expertly from within the texture with both emotional and dramatic impetus.  Kudos to the brass section and percussion section that added a depth and warmth that graciously filled in the spaciousness of Janacek’s broad palate.  The maestoso and tricky shifts in mood were well-handled by Salonen as were the flexible shifts of tempo.

Act I:

Episode 1:  A dissonant motto theme is introduced.  The voices, as in Strauss, emerge from the orchestral palate.  The difficult singing was handled well by Willard White as Alexandr Petrovic Gorjancikov, whose vulnerability is suggested by the high solo violin heard above his vocal inflections, well-balanced by Salonen.  I absolutely loved the colours Janacek used here and the manner in which he combines instruments to create the exacting mood of the situation, which in this case is sombre, eerie, and tense.

Willard White as Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov

Episode 2:  The torment of the captured eagle.  The flapping of the eagle is realistically created in the orchestra.  The prisoner’s fun is soon over as the Governor returns with his guards and orders them to work.  The hymn sung by the chorus of the Metropolitan opera was set to text by Dostoyevsky “Neuvidí oko již'” (My eye will never again see the land of my birth).  Underneath them, Salonen retained successful orchestral balance.  Especially beautiful was the moment at which the flute and piccolo soar high above the orchestra to accent the lyrical singing.  Skuratov, here played by Kurt Streit sang his “cheerful song” expressively, annoying Luka (portrayed by Stefan Margita).  The crazy sounding “la la la’s” sung by Skuratov and the wild dance that sent him into a frenzy were exacted dramatically and well expressed by the Met orchestra.

Stefan Margita as Luka

Luka then tells his story, how he killed an officer who came to calm a riot he had started.  In one of the most substantial monologues in the opera, Janacek demands control over the growth of intensity.  Margita balanced the energy required for this shifting monologue, at first beginning with him sewing and culminating in his stabbing the knife into the officer.  This is followed by a dreamy recap of the opening theme by two solo violins, which was expertly and expressively invoked by the members of the Met orchestra.  In the meantime, Alexandr Petrovič returns from being punished, half dead.  A long orchestral postlude creates a hypnotic sensation on the theme of Skuratov and Luka’s fight.  The act ended with a magnificent invocation from the percussionist, a fortissimo timpani solo.

Act 2: One year after act 1, a prelude is heard with an offstage vocalise evoking the opening of the river Irtysh with a view of the steppe, in contrast to the enclosed prison yard of Act I.  Prisoners working on a ship are invoked by the diegetic sounds created by the Met Opera Orchestra.  Metal banging and a saw are heard in the instrumentation.  Here Petrovic meets Aljeja and offers to teach him to read.  Here, the orchestra retained a more cheery tinta.  Bells are heard in the distance and the prisoners sit to eat.  Skuratov, played by Kurt Streit begins to tell how he killed the man his sweetheart Luiza was forced to marry.  Sung well by Streit, with emotional inflections, the orchestral palate is much more lyrical and the heaviness that surrounded the first act is now almost obliterated by the full string and woodwinds.  The modal sound increases and culminates in the prisoners excitement over the thought of “theatre,” a certain personal thought of Janacek’s.

Kurt Streit is Skuratov

The prisoners begin to act out two plays on an improvised stage, in mime.  “Leporello” (Don Juan), and “The Miller’s Beautiful Wife.”  Esa-Pekka Salonen handled the orchestra expertly in this difficult section.  The atmosphere he created and the flexibility with which he inflected the constant changes of mood were fluent and did not disturb the action in the least.  Once their little play is over, a young prisoner goes off with a Prostitute and the chorus and Luka begin to sing folksongs offstage.  Petrovic and Aljeja remain to face a quarrel started by a short prisoner.  Aljeja is injured and guards rush into keep order as the drum, once again, ends the act.

Act 3:  A prison hospital, the triumphal sounding prelude was well executed and with lovely phrasing.  The passing of time now has Luka dying on a bed surrounded by Petrovič and Aljeja.  The reminiscent character of the scene is expressed within the orchestral palate, but this quickly changing palate moves, all at once, to a more chamber-like texture that was well impressed by Salonen.  The final monologue recalls the story of Akulka, Filka, and Siskov.  The tragic story was emotionally inflected by Peter Mattei, who is the singer who impressed me the most in his dramatic portrayal and musical eloquence.  This is the longest monologue in the opera and is sustained beautifully by virtuoso vignettes by several of the operas characters.  Salonen balanced the tension between the wrongs done to Akulka and the tenderness that represents her true nature.  As the story ends, Luka dies.

The irony comes in that only after Luka’s death does Siskov recognize him as Filka.

Act III, scene ii:  The scene returns to the empty, darkness of Act I except now the Governor, who had originally beaten Petrovic, tells him that he is to be released.  What was to be a much warmer texture in the orchestra could have been more in this case, because that balance and ironic twist needs to be pronounced.  As Petrovic leaves, the prisoners release the eagle and celebrate its freedom.  The chorus was well effected by the Met chorus, which is always wonderful under the direction of Donald Palumbo.

This opera is interesting because it really lacks a functional plot, at least in the manner of that which we associate with most operas.  It is a collective or combinative opera however, and for that to work the soloists’ monologues must emerge from within the texture of the orchestra, which is the foundation of the drama itself.  In this regard, the Met’s production was successful.

One thing that caught my ear, however, was the opening discussion from Met broadcasters about “verismo” or works that depict reality.  Verismo is a defined and specific Italian genre with individual aesthetic properties.  Simply because a work depicts real-life events does not suggest we can call it “Verismo.”  Janacek’s work, while it expertly depicts the grim realities of life, does not belong in the “Verismo” genre.

Leos Janacek

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