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Opera review: Esa-Pekka Salonen makes Met debut in New York

November 17, 2009 |  6:00 pm

From the house of the dead -- as I’ve heard the Metropolitan Opera grumpily described from time to time -- comes a great “From the House of the Dead.”  OK, that’s a cheap shot, but a company generally eager to please has finally tackled Janácek’s last and least ingratiating opera, with the acclaimed French theater, film and sometimes opera director Patrice Chéreau and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen making their Met debuts.

The result is an unusually uncompromising artistic triumph for the Met, and a surprising hit. For 90 transfixing minutes Monday night, at the second of seven performances (running through Dec. 5), an audience of nearly 4,000 sat in remarkable, stunned silence.

“From the House of the Dead,” which is based on Dostoevski’s 1862 exposé of a Siberian prison camp, may not be anyone’s idea of an evening’s entertainment, especially in a weak economy. The opera offers no big starring roles, little conventional plot, unrelentingly intense music and a principally male cast of hardened criminals and cruel guards. But last week's opening night reviews were raves, and shortly before Monday’s curtain, scalpers were circling the new Las Vegas-style dancing fountain in Lincoln Center plaza.

Janácek finished the opera in 1928, two months before he died. At 74, he was in love with a woman half his age and acutely aware of the unbridgeable gap between life and death, between, in fact, any slight remnant of life and no life at all. The miracle of his opera is that the greater the prisoners’ degradation and the more hopeless their plight, the more alive they become and the more amplified the meaning of their lives.

At the center of each of the three acts, a prisoner describes his crime, one more heinous than the next. Murderous men, unlucky in love, are possessed of jealousy and hate. They whip and slaughter their women and are, in turn, beaten and broken in prison. The lash is a leitmotif.

But in music lies their humanity and, perhaps, even divinity. Janácek’s unique style of small themes, varied and repeated, pick up the melodic and rhythmic tics of the Czech language, at the same time picking up the tics of the characters. The flexible musical style allowed Janácek to change focus so rapidly and continually that a listener feels as though being in multiple psyches at once.

Chéreau uses this lack of center for his starting point. Against a monumental set by Richard Peduzzi of imposing but oddly elegant concrete walls, the director carefully choreographs his fidgety criminals. No one commands attention for long. One’s eye is always made to scan the prison. Subtitles are projected on the set to further make sure a viewer’s attention doesn’t wander from where Chéreau wants it. Every man, after all, has a story to tell.

Salonen’s conducting is supple, powerful and warm. He takes the five-minute prelude with the terrible urgency of a prison door closing. One minute we had walked past a silly fountain, now we are in the slammer and nothing can be the same. But from horror he exults in the unbelievably rich details the Met players are so good at revealing, each odd melody and catchy rhythm conveying something scary or endearing about someone.

Janácek framed his opera with the arrest and release of a political prisoner, Gorianchikov, who is portrayed with shocking, dispirited dignity by Willard White. The demented murder monologues of Luka (Stefan Margita), Skuratov (Kurt Streit) and Shishkov (Peter Mattei) could serve as studies in the manifestation of violence. Alyeya is the saddest and sweetest character, a young boy who finds a surrogate father in Gorianchikov. Usually portrayed by a mezzo in drag, here he is affectingly sung by a lyric tenor (Eric Stoklossa).

Chéreau has different ideas about drag. He adds a homoerotic context not in the libretto but hardly unrealistic. Janácek slightly lightened his opera’s center with two licentious pantomimes, which Chéreau stages with a brilliantly controlled crudity. The other theatrical coup is a thunderous crash of a ton of garbage at the end of Act 1. It makes the heart stop.

The ensemble is large and Chéreau ensures an overdose of testosterone.  A prostitute (Kelly Cae Hogan) has a couple of lines, but otherwise it's men, men, men, including a male chorus. That not being enough, the director employs an additional 20 male actors. The energy is explosive, but something must rise from the destruction. For reasons I don't understand, Monday's production left a lingering glow.

Unfortunately, “From the House of the Dead” is not scheduled to glow as brightly as it should. The Met has not scheduled it for the Live in HD series shown in movie theaters. But the production, which originated in Vienna with Pierre Boulez conducting, was filmed in France and has been recently released on DVD with a different cast. Salonen takes the production to La Scala in Milan early next year.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: A scene from Act 1 of "From the House of the Dead" at the Metropolitan Opera. Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera