Janáček - From The House Of The Dead (Z mrtvého domu)

ONP Bastille, Paris, Friday November 24 2017

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen. Production: Patrice Chéreau, restaged by Peter McClintock, Vincent Huguet and Thierry Thieû Niang. Sets: Richard Peduzzi. Costumes: Caroline de Vivaise. Lighting: Bertrand Couderc. Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov: Willard White. Aljeja, a young Tartar: Eric Stoklossa. Luka Kuzmič (Filka Morozov): Štefan Margita. Big Prisoner: Peter Straka. Small Prisoner: VladimÍr Chmelo. Prison Governor: JiřÍ Sulženko. Elderly Prisoner: Graham Clark. Skuratov: Ladislav Elgr. Čekunov: Ján Galla. Drunk Prisoner: Tomáš Krejčiřík. Cook, Blacksmith: Martin Bárta. Priest: Vadim Artamonov. Young Prisoner: Olivier Dumait. Prostitute: Susannah Haberfeld. Prisoner/Don Juan/The Brahmin: Ales Jeniš. Kedril: Marian Pavlovič. Šapkin: Peter Hoare. Šiškov: Peter Mattei. Čerevin: Andreas Conrad. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

As I’ve often written, it’s hard to do justice, in writing, to a great evening. In this case, the late Patrice Chéreau’s production, meticulously and brilliantly reconstructed, had the effect of a grenade: a short (well, fairly short when played without an interval) sharp shock of concentrated drama, mixing violence and humiliation, grotesqueness, friendship, love and death with a degree of pathos and humanity to match the sympathy with his fellow man that always shines through in Janacek’s music.

Singers and actors, intertwining seamlessly together, some with their feet shackled, fight and play, dress and undress, break stones, sort waste, sing, act, dance with abandon, and tell their stories in a staging that’s virtuoso yet unostentatious, as solid and compact and perfect as a sober, marble monument. The directing is infinitely detailed, the costumes are an assortment of drab, sagging, everyday rags, and beautifully-crafted lighting brings out details of dust and smoke. High cement towers, silently interlocking, puzzle-like, on rails, form suffocating spaces. Sparse props are brought on when needed: a wooden eagle with hinged wings, black lumps of rock, a sudden shower of waste paper throwing up clouds of dust, stepped steel seating on wheels for the opera, iron bedsteads...

The powerful emotional package was bolstered by a focused, committed performance from top-rate singers, evenly-cast but nicely contrasting, solid chorus work, Salonen’s vigorous, detailed, conducting, and a driven orchestra playing its best Janacek yet, in my experience and if my memory serves me right.

I didn't really feel inclined to focus on one singer or another, but for the record... Stefan Margita was as percussive (and menacing) as ever. Ladislav Elgr, new to me, was less percussive but had great stage presence and unfolded his tale movingly. At 76 or so, Graham Clark shows, vocally (that familiar "Loge/Mime" voice), no sign of age but made a touching elderly prisoner. Willard White and Eric Stoklossa were convincingly contrasted, White massively avuncular, Stoklossa juvenile and slight. And Peter Mattei's acting and singing were both just spellbinding.


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