From the House of the Dead/Boulez (DVD)

0 of 5 stars

From the House of the Dead – Opera in three acts to a libretto by the composer based on Dostoyevsky’s “Memoirs from the House of the Dead” [Critical Edition by Sir Charles Mackerras and John Tyrrell]

Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov – Olaf Bär
Aljeja – Erik Stoklossa
Filka / Luka – Štefan Margita
Tall Prisoner – Peter Straka
Short Prisoner – Vladimír Chmelo
Commandant – Jiří Sulženko
Old Prisoner – Heinz Zednik
Skuratov – John Mark Ainsley
Čekunov – Jan Galla
Drunken Prisoner – Tomáš Krejčiřík
The Cook – Martin Bárta
The Priest – Vratislav Kříž
Young Prisoner / A Voice – Olivier Dumait
A Prostitute – Susannah Haberfeld
Prisoner acting Don Juan and the Brahmin – Ales Jenis
Kedril – Marian Pavlovič
Šapkin – Peter Hoare
Šiskov – Gerd Grochowski
Čerevin – Andreas Conrad

Arnold Schoenberg Choir

Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Patrice Chéreau – Stage Director
Thierry Thieû Niang – Artistic Collaborator
Stéphane Metge – Film Director

Recorded 20 July 2007 in Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence

Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins

Reviewed: May 2008
CD No: DG 073 4426 [DVD]
Duration: 1 hour 40 minutes [plus 48 minutes of bonuses]



“From the House of the Dead” dates from Janáček’s final years (he died in 1928), the culmination of an amazingly productive period which also saw the composition of Sinfonietta, “Glagolitic Mass” and the Second String Quartet (Intimate Letters). The opera is based on Dostoyevsky’s memoirs of his life as a political prisoner in a Siberian camp between 1850 and 1854, Janáček taking dialogue from the novel to form his libretto and accompanying it with some of his most austere but affecting music.

Although the opera was essentially complete when Janáček died, a month after his 74th-birthday, the sparseness of the scoring led his pupils Břetislav Bakala and Osvald Chlubna to the false conclusion that it needed further work, principally a thickening of the orchestration, although they also added a spuriously triumphant conclusion. Only in 1961 was the opera heard in something of its intended form in a new version prepared and conducted by Rafael Kubelík. A further version was prepared by Sir Charles Mackerras and John Tyrrell prior to Mackerras’s 1980 studio recording and this is the version conducted by Pierre Boulez for the performance on this DVD.

This production of “From the House of the Dead”, Patrice Chéreau’s first collaboration with Boulez since they worked on Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle and Berg’s “Lulu” in the late 1970s, was presented in Vienna and Amsterdam in the spring of 2007 before arriving at the Aix-en-Provence opera festival where this film of it was made. The production received considerable critical acclaim, but I’m not sure that the merits of the live experience are fully preserved on this recording.

Richard Peduzzi’s set represents the confinement of the prison camp by a series of towering concrete walls. While this works well for the oppressive atmosphere of the first and third acts, it fails to provide the necessary contrast for the lighter second. More serious is the fussy and restless camera work from director Stéphane Metge. The use of extreme close ups – the camera frequently moving amidst the actors – was presumably intended to provide a sense of immediacy, but the result is too often jerky and annoying. The pantomime scene near the end of Act two, the stage dimly lit at this point, is particularly confusing. By contrast, there are no problems with the close focus but well-balanced recording, made by Radio France.

Although Boulez’s conducting was also praised, I find it rather cool. The playing he draws from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is affecting in the concertante passages but collectively fails to capture the surging emotion of Act One and the poignancy and high spirits of the scenes in Act Two. Only in Act Three does the performance gain in emotional temperature. Although there is applause at the end of the opera, the immediacy of the camerawork and lack of audience noise elsewhere suggests that some of the performance was recorded under studio conditions.

“From the House of the Dead” is a particularly demanding opera for the singers, a number of whom have long monologues describing their crimes, which include the reported speech of other characters. Štefan Margita is memorable as Luka (although his portrayal has more irony than aggression) and John Mark Ainsley is especially convincing as the troubled Skuratov. The most moving interpretation comes from Gerd Grochowski as Šiskov. When he sings Akulina’s words, “Forgive me, too, my gallant boy. I have nothing against you now,” in Act Three, the orchestra accompanying with music of the utmost lyricism and radiance, the effect is heartbreaking.

The role of the boy Aljeja, originally allocated by Janáček to a mezzo-soprano, is sung by a tenor, Erik Stoklossa. This follows the practice of the work’s first producer, Ota Zitek in 1930, although I’m not convinced that a tenor adds anything to the role.

The DVD includes subtitles in English, German, French and Spanish, although not Czech. There are a number of extras, including Boulez rehearsing the orchestra (in English), Patrice Chéreau rehearsing the cast in English and German, and Thierry Thieû Niang rehearsing the pantomime in English, German and French.

At present (May 2008), this is the only available version of the opera on DVD, although at some point Deutsche Gramophone will presumably release the Vienna State Opera production conducted by Claudio Abbado at the 1992 Salzburg Festival (previously available on VHS). The Viennese playing is perhaps over-plush for this work, but Abbado is more compelling than Boulez in the first two acts, and Brian Large’s video direction is greatly to be preferred to Metge’s. However, this DVD is valuable for preserving Chéreau’s direction and what is likely to be Boulez’s final opera performance, as well as a deeply moving Act Three.

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