From the House of the Dead
“That black opera of mine is giving me plenty of work,” Leoš Janáček wrote in a letter to his muse Kamila Stösslová in November 1927. He was seventy-four, and From the House of the Dead was to be his last opera, written in little over a year and barely finished, if finished at all. “It seems to me as if in it I am gradually descending lower and lower, right to the depths of the most wretched people of humanity. And it is hard going.”1
He could hardly have chosen more intractable source material. Dostoevsky’s fictionalized memoir of his four years of imprisonment in a Siberian prison camp, written in 1860, would seem to be a text resistant to adaptation for any stage, operatic or otherwise. It consists chiefly of long essayistic passages interrupted by anecdotes involving scores of characters, many of whom come to the fore only once or twice and are never heard from again, in a setting whose chief characteristics—hunger, cold, overcrowding, pervasive disease, constant verbal abuse, horrifying and sometimes lethal punishments, all of it endured over a period of years (for some, lifetimes)—could not easily be conveyed on a stage.
Janáček resorted to what might seem a radical cutting-up of Dostoevsky’s text. Ignoring completely the original order of presentation, omitting many important episodes, he freely fused and transposed incidents and characters. The incident of the wounded eagle that the prisoners capture and eventually allow to fly away, which provides a framing device for the opera, turns up very late, and almost as an afterthought, in the book; the Muslim boy Alyeya, whose importance for Janáček is further emphasized in Patrice Chéreau’s staging at the Metropolitan Opera, takes up only a few very moving pages early in Dostoevsky. Janáček added very little of his own invention with the exception of one somewhat melodramatic touch in the third act, when the dead man in a neighboring bunk is revealed to be the hometown nemesis of the prisoner Shishkov, a thoroughly operatic coup de théâtre that seems at odds with the studied randomness of Dostoevsky’s narrative.
Yet otherwise all this tinkering and collaging results in a work perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the book. The House of the Dead announces itself at every turn as tentative, partial, a necessarily fragmentary and incomplete account of something too immense, diverse, and contradictory to be laid out neatly. Dostoevsky told his story out of order, with not infrequent repetitions and backtracking, as if to emphasize that of all things destroyed by prison life a sense of orderly linear progression was the first to go. He claimed to have left out the details of most of…
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