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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Opera Review: Prison Bound

From the House of the Dead at the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul Pelkonen
The cast cleans up the Gulag in Act II of From The House of the Dead.
Photo © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera
The French director Patrice Chéreau makes his long-awaited Metropolitan Opera debut with this staging of From the House of the Dead, the final opera by Czech composer Leoš Janáček. From the House of the Dead is based on an autobiographical novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It details life in a Siberian gulag, and has an all-male cast. However, this bleak story is set against gorgeous, uplifting music that manages to express the plight of the prisoners and the underlying humanity behind the snow, ice and violence.

The opera opened with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen suddenly popping up in the orchestra pit and bursting into the overture. As the curtains rose quickly, prisoners shuffled around in the dimness, the only light provided by the occasional flare of matches.

The lights came up to reveal Richard Peduzzi's set, which consisted of moving, bleak gray walls, placing the prisoners in a bizarre B.F. Skinner box. Invisible doors opened and closed. White surtitles were projected on the blank surfaces, making the prisoners' dialogue appear as strange, authoritarian messages. Walls slid back and forward. Trash dropped out of the ceiling, The curtain dropped down like a guillotine.

Chéreau and Salonen have compressed this three-act opera into one 100-minute span. This intense, cinematic approach to what is already a very short opera has the unfortunate effect of weakening the opera's sense of time-lapse between scenes, and at the same time, exhausting the audience. What keeps the opera moving is Salonen's remarkable performance in the pit, sharply pointing out the spiky folksong melodies, characteristic off-meter rhythm and complex orchestral details.

There are great voices in this cast, soaring above the score like an eagle above the frozen gulag. The cast features baritone Willard White, tenor Stefan Margita, and (in my favorite bit of casting) an appearance by veteran character tenor Heinz Zednik. All are excellent dramatic actors.and the spiky, folksong textures, driving Czech rhythms and unique melodies emerged beautifully under Salonen's baton.  Compelling acting kept the audience riveted. This is not necessarily a "fun" night at the theater, but it is an awe-inspiring one.

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