Monday, February 11, 2008

From the House of the Dead (Review)

Czech composer Leos Janacek left a manuscript on his desk when he died in 1928. The opera, based on Dostoyevsky's semi-autobiographical novel about his time in a Siberian prison camp, was so weird that Janacek's students, examining it after his death, believed it to be unfinished. They "finished" it (reorchestrated it to make it more conventional and changed the ending to make it more upbeat) and the revised version was performed sporadically. Decades later some musicologists, including noted Janacekophile and maestro Charles Mackerras, decided that there had been a terrible error: Janacek had indeed completed the piece. They were able to reinstate the original opera, but it has been sparsely performed since.

Enter the Canadian Opera Company and the vision of General Director Richard Bradshaw. With the aid of set and costume designer Astrid Janson, Bradshaw started a process to mount Janacek's original version of From the House of the Dead. Bradshaw died before he could conduct the piece, so the Australian conductor Alexander Briger was hired. Briger happens to be the nephew of Mackerras and a next-generation Janacek expert.

The opera, currently being performed by the COC at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, is a short sharp shock: 90 minutes of uninterrupted power. Bradshaw told Janson that the only time he'd seen the opera he'd fallen asleep, so they, along with director Dmitri Bertman, ensured that there was no boredom in this version. The set contains three levels: a lower level of cramped cages that hold the 75 prisoners at the start of the opera; a middle level that serves as the commandant's dining hall and later the prison hospital and has ramps on which the prisoners walk in shuffling circles; and an upper level where guards watch security cameras. Janson says that after studying Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn and modern prison fiction, the themes that she and Bradshaw wanted to convey were over-crowding, social hierarchies and violence, with sub-themes of substance abuse, despair, and the spark of humanity. To this end, there are no entrances or exits: all 75 members of the cast mill around on the stage throughout the opera, the effectiveness of which is heightened by this opera having no stars but many soloists, with a lot of important music for the chorus.

Janacek's orchestration is decidedly different, but always beautiful and engaging. Briger says that Janacek's favorite key is A flat minor - "a key used so seldom that many musicians don't bother to practice it". He adds, "his music is full of double flats, double sharps. He'll use D double flat not C major." Briger says that "for the orchestra, this is the hardest opera ever written." In one infamous anecdote, a conductor who tried to perform this opera was so shaken by the experience that he gave up conducting forever.

Not only is From the House of the Dead not in most musician's repertoire, but most have never heard it and they have trouble conceptualizing what it should sound like. The rhythm changes frequently in odd ways. In addition, Janacek stretches the use of instruments: according to Briger, he calls for "extremely low notes from the trombones and tuba, along with screaming high piccolos." It takes many rehearsals to get the music right. Globe & Mail reviewer Robert Everett-Green apparently found that perfection was not reached by opening night; in his review he wrote, "It must be a challenge to play all those jagged unisons, which did not always come off cleanly in an otherwise shapely performance." If that's true, the orchestra had worked out the kinks by the time I saw the opera on February 10.

The singers also face challenges with From the House of the Dead. Singers come in with brief snatches of song and disappear: it is enormously difficult for them to know when to sing, especially with 75 men jostling on the stage. (At an opera symposium on Saturday, tenor Robert Kunzli said that during a performance last week he suddenly realized that it was time for him to sing and he didn't even have time to take a breath; conductor Alexander Briger, sitting next to him, looked genuinely shocked and upset by the revelation.) For parts of this production the chorus points towards the back of the stage and takes direction from Briger via monitor. This must be difficult for all concerned, but creates a wonderful echo-y sound.

The first act is the most challenging for audiences, with a lot of clanging sounds. Janacek's orchestration conveys a sense of despair through the omission of a middle range, relying often on very high sounds played with very low sounds. The second and third acts become more accessible. You might think of Puccini or even Aaron Copland in some of the music. It's not so much that the beautiful music creates a contrast for the brutal stories being told, but that they show the humanity that exists in everyone; as one character sings, everyone has a mother. The music seems to reflect Dostoyevsky's Christian socialist utopianism and Janacek's humanism.

The history of Russian prison camps goes back to Ivan the Terrible in the mid-sixteenth century. As Russia started to build an empire by expanding east into Siberia it confronted the challenge of how to populate its new territories; the solution was to send criminals and dissidents there. By the nineteenth century Russia was sending hundreds of thousands of citizens to Siberia, a practice famously continued by Stalin. Some were sent for periods of exile and some were sent to labor camps. Depending on a person's degree of influence and privilege, the experiences could be very different; for example, Stalin was sent to a harsh sentence in northern Siberia, while Lenin was sent to a relatively cushy sentence in southern Siberia, near a railway so his mother could visit and send packages, with his colleagues and fiancee nearby.

The characters in From the House of the Dead also have different experiences. The political prisoner Petrovic Gorjancikov, who enters the camp at the beginning of the opera, obviously comes from a wealthy family. Everyone else is doomed to stay in the camp forever, or nearly. They lament, Will I ever see my home again? or Will I ever see my children? with a real sense of hopelessness.

The opera ends with the release of Gorjancikov (presumably because someone bribed the commandant), and simultaneously with the release of an eagle (played in Toronto by a trained Harris hawk) that has been nursed back to health by the prisoners. That's the opera as Janacek wrote it, but I prefer the original Dostoyevsky version: the eagle still has a broken wing and so is released to certain death in the wild. It seems wrong to say Okay, off you go - sorry for the beatings and all that; and then presume that the person (and society) is not irretrievably altered by the brutality of the experience.

From the House of the Dead is not a popular opera, so I was able to upgrade my season's tickets to prime seats on the floor. Once again I was disappointed by the sound there: the mix of orchestra and voice is too much in the favor of the orchestra, drowning out some singers. In a piece like this that is mostly about the orchestra, that wasn't a big problem, but still, I think I would have preferred to see it from my usual cheap seats in Ring Three.



Miss Mussel said...

I was there yesterday in Ring 3 and the balance was excellent for the most part. There were fleeting occasions when the singer was not so audible but it was worth it to have the orchestra playing as they were. Forcing them to play more quietly would have been a nightmare for all involved.

It's the first time I've heard opera at the new hall. I look forward to more!

Yappa said...

Hi Miss Mussel -

I'm glad you enjoyed it! I shared tickets with someone at a performance last fall and sat one half in the orchestra and one half in Ring 3, so I was able to really tell that the mix of sound is better in Ring 3.

I agree that the orchestra needed to play as loud as they did. The piece requires a lot of gusto and passion. I guess a couple of the singers just couldn't get the necessary volume.