Janàček's From The House of The Dead opens in New York this week. How will it be received? This is a grim opera set in a Siberian prison in Tsarist times. Anyone expecting saccharine fairy tales is in for a shock. But Janàček, despite his love for folk idiom, isn't folksy. The cute picture postcard image of "tourist" Janàček is far from what the composer, and his music, is really like. Even The Cunning Little Vixen packs a lethal punch if you really think about it.
From the House of The Dead is in some ways Janàček's masterpiece even though it was unfinished on his sudden death. Always a late developer, in his 70s he seems to have been entering a new, wilder creative phase. Whether he saw Wozzeck or The Rite of Spring, I don't know but he would have heard about what was going on. A lifelong Russophile, he would probably also have had an idea how things in Stalinist Russia were turning out, too, by 1927.
Janàček's work was known in Britain fairly early: the Sinfonietta is dedicated to an English supporter and Rafael Kubelik who knew it conducted at the Royal Opera House after the war. Then the Iron Curtain came down. Even in Czechoslovakia, the authorities didn't give Janàček his due as one of the culture ministers was a foe of the composer. And since most operagoers don't speak Czech or Slovak, Janàček's operas have reached the public in English translation where the edgy, dissonant speech patterns of the language he loved so much were neutralized. So it's now time for a reassessment.
Pierre Boulez discovered Janàček in the 1960's from reading the score of The Diary of One Who Disappeared, which heralded Janàček's burst of new work in the 1920's, so he came to the composer with completely fresh ideas. In 2007 I went to Amsterdam to hear Boulez conduct From The House of The Dead after having heard glowing reports from the Salzburg premiere. It was fantastic - crackling with energy, intensely passionate, a statement so powerful it's not so surprising after all that this opera wasn't considered "popular". Now, thankfully, we can hear it without compromise.
“Janáček adapts the absence of conventional development in folk music”, said Boulez after the Amsterdam performance. He used "found sounds" like the clucking of chickens in his yard and uses idioms beyond the Austro-German core. The repetitive pulse varies through changes in rhythm, tone and direction. The refrains “Hou, hou, hou!“, and “Chi, chi, chi!” and even “Ach…ach….ach!” function as if they were abstract parts of the orchestration.
"This opera is “primitive, in the best sense”, said Boulez, “but also extremely strong”, like the paintings of Léger, where the “rudimentary character allows a very vigorous kind of expression”. Thus, there are “many cases where you cannot find the logic in how the rhythmic notation changes from one ostinato to the next….so you have to take a little freedom”.
Freedom matters in an opera about prison. Into the closed world of the camp, come two alien creatures, the political prisoner Gorjančikov and the wounded eagle, "The Tsar of the Skies". Both get away in the end, but it's luck, not logic, and we don't know if they will survive even when they're free. The world is irrational: the prisoners are engaged in mindless make-work, sorting scraps, building a ship (in landlocked Siberia). They put on plays in which they act out stories from societies in which they no longer belong.
In New York, they won't be getting the full Boulezian blast as Esa-Pekka Salonen will be conducting. Luckily, he's good and won't be quite so hard for conservative audiences to take on board. The New York soloists also aren't in the same league as the ones who sang in Europe. But they'll be getting the production by Patrice Chéreau.
Chéreau doesn't do decorative. From the outset, Boulez and Chéreau both attended rehearsals, so the ideas developed with an understanding of the full orchestral score. Actors were used to explore the body language and dynamic of the characters, so the singers had more to work with when developing their vocal approaches. “Coherence”, said Boulez "between ideas, music and drama, is the basis of the interpretation."
The production reflects the score intimately: each physical movement has its basis in something in the music, whether it's the "threshing" sounds as the prisoners work, or the stylized acting in the plays the prisoners enact. Ensemble blocking is very strong, for this is an opera where individuals act within wider groups, just as the prison is a microcosm of society.
Boulez chose a tenor to sing Aljeja : it's more logical than using a soprano, and makes better musical sense, too, because the male voices balance in a more subtle way. Perhaps the idea of a soprano stems from the sexual tension inherent in the narrative, which Chéreau doesn't fudge. Of course homosexual acts happen in prison, even if they reflect power struggles rather than love. Nowadays we're mature enough not to be prissy about such things. In any case I hardly noticed them until I saw the close-ups on the DVD. (Get it, it's the top recording now, leaving all others behind.)
Chéreau doesn't use a real eagle, because that would be cruel and in any case hard to stage. Instead, he uses an elaborate mechanical bird, which looks quite magnificent, certainly aspiring to more than the brutal existence the prisoners endure. The bird is also metaphor: like the prisoners, it's a toy of fate, and cannot really fly away. Still, it represents hope even if it may not come.
What New York audiences will make of From The House of The Dead and of Chéreau's no-nonsense approach, I don't know. It does confound the usual clichés about the composer and about foreign directors. But the whole point of performance is to hear what someone has to say, and in Janàček, there's a lot we don't already know. Read Iron Tongue of Midnight HERE, with links to the New York Times.