Composer: Leo Janacek
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Director: Patrice Chéreau
Alexander Ptrovich Gorianchikov: Willard White
Aleya: Eric Stoklossa
Filka Morozov: Stefan Margita
Skuratov: Kurt Streit
Shapkin: Peter Hoare
Shishkov: Peter Mattei
Better late than never, yesterday afternoon I was finally back at the Lincoln Center for my first Met opera of the season. I really can't say that a work titled From the House of the Dead taking place in a Siberian prison camp sounded immediately appealing, even if it boasted associations with Dostoevsky and Janacek (thought-provoking artists, yes, but a bit on the dark side indeed). At least it was as far away from jingle bells-induced merriment as possible, that's for sure. On second thoughts, it sounded like a pretty intriguing adventure and having highly regarded French director Patrice Chéreau and equally praised Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Halonen - both making their long overdue and eagerly awaited Met debuts - involved were two other deciding factors in my getting a ticket after all. Last, but not least, I hadn't paid a visit to the Big Apple in a couple of months, and any excuse was good to immerse myself in its non-stop festival of sights, noises and smells once again.
Although it was officially presented as a novel, Dostoevsky's account was obviously inspired by his own detention as a political prisoner in the 1850s. Composed of several vignettes depicting specific memories and situations on a background of grim everyday life, it was very easy to just see the prisoners' community as full of violence, boredom and hopelessness. This was definitely a man's world out there, with its unspoken codes and rituals, but you didn't have to look very deep to realize that there were also some genuine sparks of humanity and an irrepressible will to live right underneath the rough surface.
All the main characters made memorable impressions with solid, nuanced voices, unmistakable physical presence and compelling personal stories. Little by little, each of them became his own person, deserving to be heard out regardless of his crime. In a primitive and brutish society, those men still related to one another, relationships formed and life went on against all odds. Although the opera contained no main anchor beside this actual House of the Dead, the 20-minute monologue sung by world-famous baritone Peter Mattei as Sishkov was the undeniable highpoint of the afternoon with its all-consuming combination of painful narration and agitated music, inconspicuously pulling in the audience the same way as when you pass by a dreadful car accident and can't help but look over, strangely fascinated.
The set was gray and bare, basically consisting of three concrete walls on which the surtitles were inexplicably projected. The lighting was discreet, emphasizing the complete lack of the slightest ornament, and the sudden pouring of trash from the ceiling between the first and second acts certainly did not help make the place more welcoming. Even if the two plays-within-the-opera, definitely the lighter moments of the whole 90 minutes, brought in some temporary and much needed comic relief, never mind how flat out vulgar it was, you couldn't forget where you were.
In a production without any actual lead or even a plot, the star of the performance was without a doubt Janacek's fiercely inventive music, a score so richly evocative that only repeated listening would allow to decipher all its subtleties. It may have symphonic dimensions, but it also expresses thoughts and emotions with economy and efficiency, intricately mixing modern sonorities with more traditional folk themes. Esa-Pekka Salonen, well-known for his commitment to contemporary music, sure managed to keep a firm grip on the orchestra, eliciting a consistently riveting performance from them, bringing some visceral humanity out of what could have easily been a bottomless ocean of gloom and despair.
At the very end, the wounded eagle the prisoners had originally picked up and healed back to health got to spread its wings and fly away. Hope springs eternal...