Janacek – From the House of the Dead

Opéra National de Paris-Bastille, May 19 2005

Conductor: Marc Albrecht. Production: Klaus Michael Grüber. Alexander Petrovich Gorianchikov: José Van Dam. Alieia: Gaële Le Roi. Filka Morosov (Luka Kuzmich): Hubert Delamboye. Commandant: Jiri Sulzenko. Old Prisoner: Miroslav Svejda. Skuratov: Jerry Hadley. Young Prisoner: Xavier Mas. Old Prisoner: Miroslav Svejda. Prisoner playing Don Juan and the Brahmin: Sergei Stilmachenko. Shapkin: Jeffrey Francis. Shiskov: Johan Reuter. Tall Prisoner: Bojidar Nikolov. Short Prisoner: Ludek Vele. Tchekunov: David Bizic. Drunken Prisoner: Grzegorz Staskiewicz. Tcheverin: Tomasz Juhas. Kedril: Ales Briscein. A Voice: Xavier Mas.

Were they in a bad mood, were they under-rehearsed, or was it just too hard ? The Paris opera orchestra have come a long way over the years, but the prelude to From the House of the Dead took me back to the pre-Bastille days of the 80s, when Strauss was simply too much for them. Tuning and ensemble got better as the short evening went on, but even so, it seemed as if they were so focused on playing the notes (I don’t doubt that the score is demanding: I can imagine the trumpeters cursing the composer) that there was no time for nuance: they were wearyingly loud throughout, drowning the intimacy of this atypical work, which is not so much an opera as a series of accompanied solo narratives, in a sea of noise.

Clearly, too, this was the wrong house for The Dead. The Bastille seats over 3,500 and intimacy isn’t its forte. Grüber’s direction is detailed and all the singers act, but detail is lost to any but those in the first dozen or so rows of the parterre. So though we had a strong, even cast, none of whom need be singled out (except perhaps Jerry Hadley?), to me the evening fell flat; and I note that “plat” (“flat” in French) is a word that appears often in local web discussions of this production.

The production itself is clean and brightly-lit, pastel-coloured and, almost, pretty. That may seem odd for a piece set in a prison camp, but the Opéra National tells us that “we should not be misled by the title: strength, vitality and fraternity are exalted by the composer in this ‘solar’ work” and reminds us that Janacek inscribed on his score the words “In every creature, a spark of God.” So perhaps Grüber’s aim was to portray the prsioners as almost “holy innocents,” with something of the sad clown about them (they wore pale yellow uniforms, had multi-coloured shoes and semi-shaven heads), the merriment of the madhouse…

Act one was set in the prison yard: one white wall across the back, another at an angle to the right, crested with broken glass, and a huge and impressively realistic plane tree in the middle, with Alieia perched at the top and the black eagle perched on the roots. The prisoners lay around sewing. Act two was by the river, with a few bales of hay, the prisoners working on a boat to the left (that they would use as a grandstand for the opera within the opera), some boards on haystacks to the right with a giant samovar, and a “house” projected at the rear.

For the opera scene, a proscenium was lowered, decorated with evenly-spaced skulls topped each with a candle. The act three set was empty but for a large iron stove; the prisoners lay about in rectangular pools of light, and the amazing tree returned for the end, this time adorned with sinister crows. The eagle’s departure was managed using a large, black kite.

The singing and acting were, as I said, excellent and at Garnier, with an orchestra on better form, this could have been an excellent show.

I had thought Janacek was now a well-established “draw” at the opera. Clearly I was wrong. As the bells sounded, at 10 to 8, we entered an eerily empty house. I should think that in all, though “stuffed” with school groups, the Bastille was no more than half full. House of the Dead, indeed.