Bleak "House" at the Met
Just before the opening of Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead” at the Metropolitan Opera, I got a message from someone who had attended the dress rehearsal. The writer wanted to know whether this was what Peter Gelb thought we needed today.
I’m not sure what the writer of this message was taking exception to about this opera, which I saw earlier this week. I don’t see how it can be the production values of Patrice Chereau’s powerful staging (which originated at the Aix-en-Provence festival, and is available as a DVD with Pierre Boulez conducting). True, you could say that the director focused more on the mass of people on stage than on the individual characters, but I’d say this was a deliberate decision. The piece, after all, is set in a prison camp, and Chereau underlines the unalleviated bleakness and facelessness of the place, which reduces men to the merest animal instincts (grabbing up the clothes of a new prisoner as he is stripped down and inserted among them). In one early scene, the prisoners emerge from a communal bath or shower, an undifferentiated mass of naked flesh. As they clothe themselves, each body becomes distinct from the others, but not in any fundamentally significant way: here, individuation is only a surface conceit.
(read more after the jump)
(In Chereau's most powerful scene, a mass of papers and trash suddenly falls on the stage, leaving a pile of rubble beneath a rising haze of dust; I don’t know if the evocation of 9-11 was deliberate -- the papers and the cloud of ash -- but it was certainly effective, as the prisoners descended on the pile and start clearing it away, piece by piece, until not a trace of it remained. A pointless make-work exercise for the incarcerated? A human urge to obliterate the past? It was a compelling image that overshadowed the supposed action of the plot -- the growing friendship between Gorianchikov (the authoritative Willard White) and Alyeya (a part written as a trouser role, but here more credibly cast as the tenor Erik Stoklossa). The stories in this opera, Chereau made clear, are in any case mere window-dressing; the characters constantly resort to narratives to distract them from their bleak reality, creating a patchwork of tales -- even, at one point, a camp pantomime -- that pass by like a slide show and fade away to nothingness as soon as they’re over.)
I doubt, too, that the person who wrote me was objecting to the musical standards, which were impressive. The heart of this piece was the chorus, and the Met chorus continues to sound fantastic these days: one clear improvement under the Gelb regime has been the appointment of Donald Palumbo as chorus master. The soloists, too, were powerful, notably Kurt Streit as Skuratov and Peter Mattei as Shishkov. The only quibble I had here was with the conducting of Esa-Pekka Salonen, which was technical rather than emotional: the orchestra reveled and sparkled in the details of the music but seldom found its expressive core. This is particularly unfortunate given that Janacek placed such emphasis on wedding his music to his text; instead of sung speech, we got blocks of music. The result was an unalleviated quality: so many trees, but no clear path through a forest that therefore seemed particularly dense. Partly because of this lack of a strong through line, the evening seemed like a lot to grasp: one wanted to see it again to figure out what had gone on. Indeed, I met several acquaintances who had been at the opening and come back for a second helping -- and the fact that people want to see the opera more than once is itself a sign in its favor.
My correspondent was objecting, I think, to the opera itself: a typically quirky choice of subject by Janacek (the composer who wrote an opera about a fox), with prickly music and without recognizable arias. It’s unfortunately become unfamiliar fare in the opera house, where many people, like audiences in early 19th-century Italy, go looking for the Hollywood blockbusters of the operatic repertory: the pageantry and stirring melodies and faux-local color (much of it leeched by time of its own original shock value: like Verdi's opera about a courtesan, or Bizet's about an amoral gypsy). But an opera house should also present the operatic equivalent of the European art film: works that may not appeal to a mass audience but powerfully move those who want to understand them. “From the House of the Dead” is very much that equivalent. Critical acclaim is extremely high. Ticket sales are not. You may never fill the multiplex (or the Met’s 3800 seats) with Janacek; but it’s greatly to the Met’s credit that it can extend its reach to such thought-provoking works of art -- and can execute them with such a standard of excellence.
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