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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.

By Anne Midgette  |  November 20, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  national , opera  
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Now this is the review I was waiting for. I will be seeing this opera in about a week or so and I am looking forward.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | November 20, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

I attended the New York Philharmonic concert presentation of this opera in 1983 (under Charles Mackerras); and the New York City Opera production of the work in 1990. Both were excellent. (I recall the NYCO producing Moses und Aron, From the House of the Dead, The Midsummer’s Marriage, and Mathis der Maler over the course of a four season period).

While I am very pleased that Peter Gelb produced this work in his huge house and that the production is now being critically acclaimed, I must say that I was surprised that the MET Opera produced the work before the Washington Opera or the Washington National Opera staged the work; given that the Kennedy Center may have the more appropriate sized opera house for 20th c. modernist masterpieces such as Lulu, Death in Venice, From the House of the Dead, and Die Harmonie der Welt (the first two of which also had to be cross-subsidized by popular fare in order to be presented at the MET in 2002 and the late 1990s).

(PS. The Washington Opera/Washington National Opera staged Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen in an English-language translation; perhaps the only time in the past 25 years that the company has staged a translated into English-language opera. The company’s more recent production of Jenufa was, of course, in the original Czech language.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | November 20, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure what you meant about ticket sales. The 1st two performances were more than 90% full and tickets are almost gone for the other four. I just checked the Met's Web site and pretty much all that are left are seats in the back and side of each section.

Posted by: groundhogdayguy | November 20, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

"I'm not sure what you meant about ticket sales. The 1st two performances were more than 90% full and tickets are almost gone for the other four. I just checked the Met's Web site and pretty much all that are left are seats in the back and side of each section."

First, why in the world can I not access the Met's website at work??? I'm on a DOD base, but that is just odd.

Second, you know what's missing from these websites (can't tell with the Met)? Attendence figures for each performance. You look at any box score for any sport and they usually have attendence listed (either tickets sold or tickets punched/scanned). Arts organizations need a "box score". I'm sure they have these numbers already, they just don't put it on the web anywhere that I know of. Then I'd know what Ms. Midgette means by ticket sales are not high and trust Bill Murray's "more than 90% full". (Of course, who knows if I would be able to see it online at work, what is up with that?!)

Posted by: prokaryote | November 20, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Surely you mean Rafael Kubelik, not Charles Mackerras who conducted the NY Phil concert presentation (in whoch one of the singers was a certain Jon Fredric West.)

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | November 20, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Yes, Rafael Kubelik! Thank you for the swift correction of my slip!

(I am now left wondering whether or not I saw Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the beautiful Maria Bjornson (Phantom of the Opera) production of Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” I saw at the English National Opera in 1991. Some readers here will know that -- unlike the Washington National Opera - the ENO traditionally presented all operas in English language translations.)

From Matthew Gurewitsch’s recent NYT article about opera translator Yveta Synek Graff, I am also reminded that the Philharmonic “From the House of the Dead” in 1983 and the MET “Jenufa” in 1985 were both in English language translation.


“Mr. Mackerras … conducted the Paris premiere of “From the House of the Dead” in 1988, sung in Czech, with Ms. Graff’s French titles. The production was by Volker Schlöndorff, director of the Oscar-winning film “The Tin Drum.” The aerialist Philippe Petit appeared as the Eagle, symbol of hope.


Prokaryote, short of sports-like attendance figures, at least with the NSO you can now “peek” and see how various programs are selling.

For example, the Saturday’s NSO is currently shown as “Sold-Out” and only about 3 or 4% of the tickets for Sunday’s 1:30 matinee performance remain (roughly estimated). (You may know this.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | November 20, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

I am kicking myself that I haven't gone to NY for this. I saw it in a Paris Opera staging in 2005 and didn't really enjoy the opera very much, but I generally love Janacek so this may have been the second chance I needed. Dammit.

Posted by: ianw2 | November 20, 2009 6:16 PM | Report abuse

As a long-time admirer and lover of Janacek's music (all of it), I was happy to see Ms. Midgette's personal report and the many blog entries - evidently old Janacek is not so forgotten after all. I will be taking a bus to NYC on Nov. 24 for the next performance and will try to take notes to report back on my impressions. One statement on the blog needs some elaboration. Janacek may have delved into some strange plots (i.e. Cunning Little Vixen, The Makrapolous Affair, even House of the Dead), but his major theme always remained the same - "the grandeur and pathos of the human condition." For "House of the Dead," that concern was encapsulated in his remark that he was looking for "the spark of the divine in every human being." Washingtonians who saw his opera "Jenufa" last year realize that this compassionate view of the human condition was best exemplified in Jenufa's almost superhuman universal forgiveness of all who had wronged her - especially in the sublime final five minutes of that opera. I'm looking forward to the Met's performance, especially in view of the number of almost daily reviews by NY Times music critic Anthony Tommasini. The opera obviously made a major impression on him.

Posted by: reithl | November 22, 2009 10:15 PM | Report abuse

For ianw2: you can still catch “From the House of the Dead” at the Met. The remaining performances are on November 24 and 28 and on December 2 and 5 (two Saturdays.)

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | November 23, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

@ some strange plots

I was fortunate to have seen Jenufa, Katya Kabanova, and Makropoulos Case at the MET, and Vixen and From the House of the Dead elsewhere.

I’ve been much less fortunate catching a performance of The Excursions of Mr. Broucek.

Two winters in a row I had tickets to Broucek in Prague, but each time both the lead singer and his understudy were reported to have been ill – according to the posting on the theater door.

I recall that the first time a wonderful Vixen was offered as consolation. The second time - I remember less certainly - they substituted Traviata and I didn’t attend.

And, reithl, thanks for highlighting the important theme running throughout Janacek’s body of operatic work (even the almost Pirandello-esque Osud)

Posted by: snaketime1 | November 24, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

“Broucek” is getting more stage time these days -- there were recent stagings in Geneva and Vienna (Volksoper). I saw it in Munich in the 1990s with the very fine James Salter, who died earlier this year.

And speaking of “Osud,” did anyone else see it at the Bard Festival in 2003 (its U.S. premiere)?

I once saw a “Vixen” at Prague’s National Theater in the mid/late 1990s that was so wonderful (especially the conducting) that it almost spoiled me for all others. I wonder if it was the same one you saw, snaketime.

As for ticket sales for “House of the Dead” at the Met: I confess my statement was based on anecdotal evidence. It would be nice to be proven wrong.

I hope that some of you who are attending this production will post your own impressions.

Posted by: MidgetteA | November 24, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Before I get hooked, I’ll add that I too hope that others do add their thoughts here on the new MET From the House of the Dead production. In some ways, I wish that I hadn’t watched the DVD of the new production three times last spring, so that I would be in the mood to hop on the train or bus to catch this apparently very special event in NYC! (It sounds as exciting as Peter Brooks’s production of the The Mahabharata at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1987).

The new House of the Dead production is fantastic and powerful!

Yes, Ms Midgette, I am virtually sure we saw the same production of Vixen in Prague. (I forgot to mention for other readers that many, if not all, productions at the Prague National Theater feature subtitles in English, for the many visitors to the city. I believe that this is also largely true in Saint Petersburg, and to a more limited degree Moscow).

I visited Prague in the winters of 2002, 03, and 04. I recall the wonderful Vixen libretto program booklet that lovingly reproduced all of the cartoons on which Janacek based this opera. (I also remember the very large number of poor but ‘nicely’ dressed standees of all ages - many whole families - who could not even afford the few dollars basic subsidized cost of admission.)

Thank you linking to your excellent New York Times review of Osud, and for mentioning to passing of British baritone Richard Salter, who I was unaware had passed away. I heard him in Berlin and Hamburg. (James Salter is the distinguished American writer, still living.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | November 25, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

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