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
obrien_1-011410.jpg
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.”

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 …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Subscription — $74.95

Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.