After a critical ‘beat-down’ following Luc Bondy’s new Tosca, the Met shined tonight with the company premiere of Leoš Janáček’s opera, From the House of the Dead. Both the Director, Patrice Chéreau and the Conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen made their long overdue Met debuts with this near perfect production, in which they seemed to march lock-step the entire way. Both have long ago established themselves as visionaries, but tonight we saw the beauty of a perfect artistic match.
In music, we often get caught up with the desire to label or categorize a composer. Janáček can be seen as a staunch Czech nationalist. He despised Hapsburg rule, spoke Czech and Russian when they were unpopular, published volumes of peasant folk songs, and notated simple speech melodies of children. Nonetheless, we should not look at this opera as an anthology of glorified folk songs. Being labeled a nationalist composer often has the effect of boxing them in, leaving their music incapable of comparison with romantic or 20th century composers. Clearly, it deserves more. From the House of the Dead’s music is not lushly Romantic or shockingly modern. Instead, it is as bare and naked a representation of the beautiful human soul as one can get.
This opera has no climactic plot like other operas. Its composition is a series of day-to-day events and monologues that take place during a relatively hopeless prison life. Grim yet beautiful, horrifying yet hysterically funny, this blatantly paradoxical composition was enhanced through honest direction and conducting. Mr. Chéreau showed us how people are able to at least temporarily enjoy themselves in prison, and how quickly that can all be taken away. Peter Mattei led a cast of performers that were all excellent. The entire cast seemed physically and psychologically committed to exploring the precariousness of life. Though most visible through confined environments like prison, it is something that everyone can benefit from understanding.
Mr. Salonen brought out the brilliance of the Met Orchestra. They played confidently, always balancing and never overpowering the singers. Rich, warm, and sometimes virtuosic textures came and went through this fragmented yet beautiful score. This music does not have the overpowering romantic effect that many might desire at the opera. There are no thirty-minute long build-ups. Instead it is honest, making no attempt to cover up life’s imperfections and representing every prisoner for who they are.
Mr. Chéreau and Mr. Salonen appear to have worked tirelessly at making sure their intentions lined up seamlessly and without disruption. Mr. Chéreau’s decision to project supertitles on different parts of the stage was contrary to Met practice, (the Met has personal title screens on the back of every seat) but it worked well with keeping the audience hypnotized within the bleak prison set, designed by Richard Peduzzi. The set was comprised of three tall concrete walls, resembling World War II towers. The costumes, by Caroline de Vivaise, were not prison uniforms, but plain underwear, shirts, and slacks. Both elements were timeless. We could have been in Soviet Russia, Hilter’s concentration camps, or Guantanamo Bay.