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Sparks of God

From the House of the Dead

an opera by Leoš Janáček, staged by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen
at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, November 12–December 5, 2009
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Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
The beginning of Act 2 of Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead at the Metropolitan Opera. The prisoners are sorting and collecting the debris and waste paper that rained down at the end of Act 1.

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 his later years in Siberia because he could scarcely recall them, while the impressions of his first year as a prisoner remained indelible.

The words of the libretto are almost all directly from Dostoevsky, and Janáček’s music could be conceived as a form of impassioned reading. The way he permits himself to respond to the text is itself a model of the human relations whose thwarting and deformation is Dostoevsky’s subject. In the Met’s production it was more than a gimmick or convenience that the titles were not only visible on the seat screens but also projected at various points around the stage, depending on the location of the singers, and thus part of that action rather than an appendage. While preventing the spectator’s eyes from being diverted, the device acknowledged at every instant the primacy of the text. The source material—not merely Dostoevsky’s text but the raw experience out of which that text was made—was not ancillary to the opera but contained within it.

Janáček operates with a freedom that his subject and his source text almost demand. In a passage that could be considered a hidden epigraph for his work, Dostoevsky writes:

Reality is infinitely various when compared to the deductions of abstract thought, even those that are most cunning, and it will not tolerate rigid, hard-and-fast distinctions. Reality strives for diversification.2

To freely combine and reimagine the elements of The House of the Dead was a kind of homage to this perception, an homage extended by Chéreau’s free expansion of the implications of Janáček’s libretto.

The remarkable brevity—or, more precisely, brutal compression—of Janáček’s opera (in Chéreau’s production at the Met it lasts about one hundred minutes without intermission) is crucial to its effect. Such brevity proves paradoxically appropriate as a means of conveying the agony of mere duration of which Dostoevsky writes. A “terrible feeling of anguish” overcomes his narrator as he asks himself “how many thousands of days like this one still lie ahead of me… all of them like this one, all of them the same.” Later he adds: “It became my favourite occupation to calculate, using a thousand different measurements and methods, how long it would be before my years of imprisonment were over.” And on the eve of his release he describes walking for one last time around the prison fence: “How many thousands of times had I walked round that fence during those years!”

In Janáček the anguish of anticipated duration is somehow present at each instant, suggested by insistent orchestral figures and recurring phrases and song fragments. What can prisoners do but repeat themselves endlessly? “All lies!” one calls out as another tells his presumably well-worn tale, while Shishkov repeatedly punctuates his interminable monologue in the third act with: “Wait a minute, don’t rush me.” We are set down in an eternity where everything—every beating, every pointless quarrel, every painful recollection —has happened before and will happen again and again.

Dostoevsky’s rhythms in The House of the Dead are often those of measured recollection. His narrator, no longer in prison, can write as if there were now all the time in the world to return to those moments, playing them over and over in memory to make them yield some meaning beyond the fact of suffering. On page after page he embarks into passages that permit him to sound fully for the first time the analytical tone of his later novels—“Man is a creature that can get used to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him,” or “Tyranny is a habit; it is able to, and does develop finally into a disease.” Such meditative elaborations have at times their own aria-like qualities, but anything resembling them has been rigorously excluded from Janáček’s opera. To have permitted such interior monologues to blossom in Fromthe House of the Dead would have been to make a different work altogether, one in which it was possible to find a haven in interior reflection.

Janáček throws us from the outset, ready or not, into the prison yard among the general population. This is something more easily imagined than enacted. The triumph of the Met’s production was to bring to full realization the intensity, claustrophobic yet exhilarating, announced by the opera’s clanging, harshly repetitive opening phrases. First, and last, and throughout, no matter what else was going on, there was the sound of the orchestra, so bright and commanding that at times the stage and all that took place on it seemed a subordinate realm contained within the underlying music. This was not a matter of imbalance. If under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen the Met’s orchestra was exceptionally forceful and cohesive, the effect was to realize to the full a sonic universe in which voices eddy and bob like bits of debris caught in a current. They are not so much supported by the orchestra as forced into contention with it. Speech is struggle, and a nearly doomed struggle at that.

The weight and density of the orchestra are as constantly present as the prison walls. It is both the world in which the prisoners exist, a description of their reaction to that world, and a commentary standing apart: a text to which we are made to attend as forcefully as to anything that is sung. Call it “the Janáček effect”: that alloy of contradictory perceptions and emotions, not the expression of one feeling at a time teased out in its purity, but the inextricable mixture of rage, tenderness, pain, cruelty, and resignation, jammed together much like the prisoners themselves, in rich and often dissonant sonorities that break off and resume like glancing and unpredictable blows.

Above all the music is alive, more alive than the prisoners are; or rather it is the objectification of the life that persists in them, present and yet apart, just beyond their reach, a parallel reality. On the first page of his score Janáček wrote: “In every creature a spark of God.” The orchestral music seems to hold just such a spark—of exuberance, delight, compassion—inextricably mixed in with metallic strains of oppression and grievance. The incorporation of actual chains and bells and military drum rolls into the mix affirms that this is a description not of the ideal but of the real. What Pierre Boulez has described as “primitive, in the best sense” is this insistence on literal expression and literal meanings. Janáček wants to give us not a metaphor for a prison but the prison itself.3

Janáček did not live to see the work produced, but it may be presumed that his intention was a production design reflecting the era and settings of Dostoevsky’s Siberian prison camp. Patrice Chéreau has chosen to take the prison out of location and time—the only touch of Slavism I detected was in a priest’s headgear—to make it “all the prisons in the world…at once the Gulag and all the camps of the 20th century, a place that can become almost abstract.”4 Such abstraction need never depart too much from the literal, a prison being by definition a site of leveling and erasure. The high gray walls, the generic uniforms of the guards, the rags and cast-off clothes worn by the prisoners, the spaces unadorned and empty except for the inmates jammed into them: all this seems so much a matter of course that in the opening moments we feel already a sense of miserable resignation, as if the opera had been going for a long time before it began. It does not start: it continues.

The regimentation one might expect to see in a depiction of prison life—the rigorously enforced marches and line-ups and labor details—does not predominate. The emphasis, in Dostoevsky as in Janáček, is not on what the commanders impose but on how the prisoners attempt to assert some kind of life on the margins and in the interstices of their restricted world. Chéreau has embodied this in a ceaseless anarchic choreography. There can be no orderly formations here, no straight lines, except those exacted by command, and even those are of the shaggiest description. What we see above all is spasmodic or distracted movement, asymmetrical and irregular, the frustrated gestures and perambulations of those who have nothing to do and nowhere to go. The prisoners drift, rest, collide, explode in bursts of rage or delirium or defiant humor, subside into sullen boredom. Everything takes place within a monotony of chaos from which only the most temporary relief is available.

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Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Prisoners with the eagle that they had captured and are about to let fly away in Act 3 of From the House of the Dead

Such relief is at the center of the opera, in the holiday pantomime performed by the prisoners at the end of the second act, set as an eleven-minute musical interlude and staged by Chéreau as a mix of transvestite parody and music hall pratfalls, a rowdy fusion of homoerotic clowning and barely suppressed vandalism. The fairground overtones of the music establish this as an opera within the opera, without singing, only pushing, pulling, groping, and tumbling: an ephemeral playground paradise enacted under the eyes of guards and townsfolk and just barely staying within the ordained limits. It is an eruption of theatricality in which the prisoners seek to make a world, any world, in opposition to their surroundings. It is also one of the rare occasions on which they achieve something like voluntary collective action.

The rest of the time the impression is never of a crowd but of individuals flung unwillingly together, trying as often to avoid as to accost one another. Chéreau precisely expresses the condition described by Dostoevsky as the most unbearable aspect of imprisonment:

I could never have conceived how terrible and agonizing it would be not once, not even for one minute of all the ten years of my imprisonment, to be alone. At work to be constantly under guard, in the barracks to be with two hundred other convicts and not once, never once to be alone!

The bathhouse episode in the book, not included by Janáček, survives in Chéreau’s staging as the emergence in the middle of the first act of naked and half-naked prisoners from an offstage shower room, singing slivers of a nostalgic song about their homeland. But something more of Dostoevsky’s bathhouse scene seems to creep in here and elsewhere, an evocation of bodies pressed on each other beyond endurance:

When we opened the door into the bath itself, I thought we were walking into hell. Imagine a room about twelve paces long and roughly the same in width, into which were packed as many as a hundred, or probably at the very least eighty men at once…. Steam that swathed one’s eyes, soot, dirt, the place so crowded that there was nowhere to stand.

For Chéreau this imagery of infernal discomfort cannot help but call up further images of extermination camps unimagined by Dostoevsky or Janáček. The worst horrors, it is to be understood, are just offstage. We are in the waiting room or exercise yard of hell, recollecting past pain or anticipating future pain, and meanwhile passing the time as well as possible.

It is clear that Chéreau has drawn as freely and inventively on Dostoevsky’s text as did Janáček himself. The boldest stroke of his mise en scène—the mountain of debris and waste paper that rains down at the end of the first act, stirring up clouds of dust and becoming an environment in which the prisoners are sent roaming to sort through and collect the rubble—might be designed to illustrate another passage in The House of the Dead:

The thought once occurred to me that if one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment, one at which the most fearsome murderer would tremble, shrinking from it in advance, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.

The rain of paper is also, in its abrupt and massive disruption, an action that responds in kind to the challenge laid down by the music—as if it were necessary to counter Janáček with some equally ferocious surprise.

The opera might be described as a poem of interruption. Where there is no solitude there is no space that cannot be intruded on. In the decentered and drifting episodes of From the House of the Dead, everyone impinges roughly on everyone else and there is never any predicting what will ensue among the crisscrossing insults, snatches of song, unplanned confrontations, and sudden unprompted outpourings of memory. There can never be a fixed tableau or an unalloyed point of stillness in a condition of constant interjection and brutal overlapping. The tender dialogue in which the political prisoner Goryanchikov, a gentleman, offers to teach the Muslim boy Alyeya to read is almost drowned out, and when the two are together again, at the beginning of act three in the hospital, their discussion of the Bible—in which Alyeya plaintively evokes Jesus’ bidding to “forgive, harm no one, be loving”—is only the most momentary of respites in the midst of a scene of quarreling and physical suffering.

The only passages resembling arias are the stories told by a succession of prisoners about how they ended up in prison. In The House of the Dead the inhabitants talk about nothing but the world of the living from which they have been removed. They talk especially about the violent moments that determined their exit from it. No one asks them to speak and they are often interrupted, or badgered to tell their story faster than they want to. Their monologues manage by force of will to insert a living past into a present that is no place at all. Dostoevsky writes of one such narrator:

From his remote whisper alone you would sense that none of the things he was talking about would ever come back to him and that he himself was a severed chunk torn from that life.

They recreate a lost world by miming the voices of absent men and women. It is a ghost opera: the most dramatic scenes involve people no longer there, their deaths recounted by those who killed them.

The most extreme of these monologues is Shishkov’s long narrative in the third act, a remarkably protracted setting—although it is nowhere near as long as it seems—of Dostoevsky’s chapter “Akulka’s Husband,” hitting every point of the story of deception, exploitation, and jealousy. Here the compulsion of the reciter to be heard is the driving force of the music. The story will continue as long as it must, until the painfulness of its conclusion and the blinding guilt of the narrator can be fully appreciated.

It is peculiarly the most extended lyrical passage in the opera even as it leads inexorably through the stages of the destruction of the lost Akulina: her vilification by the man who claims to have seduced her, her condemnation by her family and neighbors, her marriage to the cynically motivated Shishkov, his realization that she is a virgin after all, and his rage when she reveals that she had always been in love with her alleged seducer: “I love him more than the whole world!” But the story isn’t over, he must go on and tell in detail how he told her he would kill her, how he led her into the fields, how he cut her throat: all of this on a weirdly plaintive note, as if we were hearing a tale of pity rather than of cruelty. At the Met the plaintiveness was sustained with extraordinary force and purity by Peter Mattei, making this even more the emotional climax of the opera.

Akulina’s solitary outburst, her hopeless declaration of love, comes from very far away, filtered through the voice of her murderer and evoking all the female figures who were central to Janáček’s other operas—Jenufa, Kát’a Kabanová, The Makropoulos Case, The Cunning Little Vixen —and who are (but for a passing prostitute with three lines to sing) absent from this last work. Or rather they persist as memory or travesty. The boy Alyeya, with his loving nature, is as beautiful as a woman; the prisoners’ pantomime revolves around the triumphant deceptions of an unfaithful wife. Finally the doomed Akulina persists as a musical phrase echoed in someone else’s throat. At such a moment Janáček’s art approaches uncanniness in its staging of the unseen and unseeable.

  1. 1

    Quoted by John Tyrell in his notes on From the House of the Dead, conducted by Charles Mackerras (Decca CD, 1980).

  2. 2

    All quotations are from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead, translated by David McDuff (Penguin, 1985).

  3. 3

    See Pierre Boulez, “Janáček’s Potent Primitivism,” note for From the House of the Dead, staged by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon DVD, 2008). The DVD is a record of the original staging of the opera in Aix-en-Provence in 2007.

  4. 4

    Patrice Chéreau, “Staging From the House of the Dead,” note for the DVD.

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