Saturday, May 10, 2008

DVD: Janacek's From The House Of The Dead

What an emotionally harrowing experience is watching this opera for the first time. Stephane Metge has made a film using the production by Patrice Chereau and Pierre Boulez (together again 30 some years after their famous Bayreuth Ring) and what a film it is. Boulez, almost literally seems to conjure this stunning performance from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. From its haunting, jangly opening I was brought to mind of Strauss and Prokofiev and how all three use the orchestral colors in the boldest possible - and not always most subtle ways. The score is a wonder of violence, tenderness, dreamlike and gritty realism. It is magnificent.

Metge's camera work gets right into the middle of things, roaming through Richard Peduzzi's stark mile high walls with a voyueristic violence that thrusts the viewer into the world of this terrible place. Pulling episodes from Dostoevsky's tale, Janacek's opera is virtually plotless, yet this which is not to say "nothing happens" because there is plenty to focus on, as these hapless gulag prisoners live, suffer, dance, dream and reminisce of their lives outside these walls. Note I didn't say dream "of happier times" for the stories they tell of their pre-prison lives are as terrifying and violent as the world they create for themselves within the walls.

As Alexandr, Olaf Bar's entrance is terrifying stuff, clearly a man of some means, besuited and bespectacled, the guards and inmates encircle and strip him, hurling his glasses into the courtyard. When he later emerges near the end of the act, filthy, shackled, and blindly crawling across ground, it's tough not to weep But, as in life, there are occasional acts of kindness and one such here between Alexandr and the boy prisoner Aljeja (a remarkable and heartbreaking performance by young tenor Eric Stoklossa) is sufficient to remind us these are still human beings, still part of the family of man, still "us."

John Mark Ainsley is a riveting presence throughout giving seering performance as Skuratov. Mad with grief, and imprisoned "for falling in love" - we watch his pathetic tale played out as he changes his garments, his mind seeming to hold the focus of his love story to keep him centered - but clearly not working. Mostly silent during the 3rd act, Ainsley still manages to give a tour de force performance - simultaneously chilling and touching. It is a stand out performance from an ensemble filled with amazing work.

At the center of the second act - and perhaps the longest sequence of the opera - is a harrowing "pageant" a ballet of depraved sexuality played out by some of the prisoners for the entertainment of the rest of the gulag. The symbolic meanings of what goes on are made clear without feeling obvious. It is stunningly choreographed (as is most of the movement seen throughout) by Chereau's collaborator Theirry Thieu Niang.

Centering on the lives and stories of these men, Chereau tends to keep the spectacles down, but he cannot resist giving us several arresting coups de theatre, particularly at the end of each act. Each of these is, in their own way, visually stunning and complimentary to Janacek's amazing score. Everything comes together perfectly, every element of the score, drama, characterizations and visual elements serves to bring this difficult work to life and when it's brief 100 minutes are over, every feeling, every emotion was felt both deep in my bones and raw on the surface.

I am thrilled the Metropolitan Opera will be featuring this production in 2009/10 season. Wild horses won't be able to keep me away.


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