The Depressing, Deadly Serious From the House of the Dead

11/16/2009 11:35 AM |

From the House of the Dead

All told, women sing fewer notes than would fit on a line or two of staff paper in Patrice Chereau’s production of Leos Janacek’s From the House of the Dead (1927), a punishing portrait of masculine misery. After all, women in opera, when they’re not wiling, often signify beauty, hope, or a reason to live. And there’s not a lot of that going around here.

Adapted from The House of the Dead, Dostoyevsky’s Siberian dispatch about pre-Soviet prison camps, the Czech composer’s final opera, sung in his native tongue, is unremittingly bleak in sound, as is every aspect of Chereau’s toast-of-Europe production (which uses a tenor in a role usually sung by a mezzo-soprano) now at the Metropolitan Opera: haggard men in Communist-colored clothing smoke and shuffle blankly, penned in by 30-foot-tall gray walls, usually coming to life only to quarrel and brawl over bits of bread like citypark pigeons. (The production marks the long-awaited Met debut for Chereau, best known for his 70s Ring cycle and avant-garde films like Gabrielle.) These men are desperate to survive, despite their desperate, unsurvivable circumstance; they often move, when they can move at all, like scurrying cockroaches frightened by a switched-on light.

In art, light usually represents hope, but the bright and jagged stage lighting here, designed by Bertrand Couderc, only serves to reveal further the pervasive blight; it’s another oppressive assault on these hopeless characters, none of which is even afforded the titular dignity of protagonist. There are no heroes here, just an inmate ensemble united in collective anguish; nor does the opera have much of a plot, let alone action: characters briefly step forward to tell their stories; others banter idly or pick fights. The libretto is nearly superfluous: this is a mood piece, and Janacek’s music is perfectly aligned with the dispiriting spirit of the content, almost to a fault.

The score—given a tight and swirling performance from the Met Orchestra, led with aplomb by Esa-Pekka Salonen, another much-anticipated debut that makes this the opera event of the season!—is dour and piercing, assaulting the ears like a bully who won’t stop poking you in the shoulder. (Directly or not, I’d bet Janacek strongly influenced John Adams’ Doctor Atomic from last season.) Every rare moment of consonance and beauty—such as when a group of naked (full frontal!) men fondly recall their homelands—quickly curdles, dissipating like any glimmer of hope would in the frozen environs of Siberia. Even a brief bit of dancing music, inflected with Russian motifs, sounds sad.

Well, why shouldn’t it? Present circumstances aren’t all these men have to feel bad about. Except for one character who declares, early on, “I’m a political prisoner!” every jailbird on stage is in the clink for murder, usually for following through on jealous fantasies of vengeance. Dostoyevsky’s coup, which Janacek preserves, was to render sympathetic these violent killers and their crimes; the operamakers here do it not only through the monologue storytelling structure, but through the dramatic performances of the singers.

Each act’s centerpiece is the confession of a crime—although Act II’s is upstaged by a ribald and riotous pantomime, a necessary respite from the otherwise persistent dolor—each more tormented than the last, reaching apotheosis in Act III during a 20-minute, tour-de-force confession of uxoricide. (Watch Gerd Grochowski sing part of that aria in a different incarnation of Cheareau’s production, presumably this one.) Peter Mattei sung the part on Thursday, as he is supposed to throughout the rest of the run, and came off like a baritonal Brando, delivering an intensely emotional, almost animalistic performance in which he used a flimsy cot like a gymnast uses a pommel horse. Janacek and Chereau have fashioned something so grim here that it was easy to get lost inside the despondency. Mattei shook me out of it, and alone—despite the commanding, headline-making debuts that surround him—makes this worth seeing.

From the House of the Dead plays tonight at 8 p.m., as well as several more times through December 5th. More info here.