O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention. And so began Patrice Chéreau's achingly theatrical production of Leoš Janácek’s From the House of the Dead, in a Shakespearean tribute, darkness punctuated by a single match -- a prisoner lighting his cigarette -- our first glimpse of the Siberian prison that would be our reckoning point for the next hour (and some), where humility is all that keeps buoyant in the oppressive confines of the descending concrete walls.
Gelb frantically covered all his bases in the month leading-up to the premiere, speaking about the ensuing Czech opera from the insultingly lowbrow dailies to the heavy hitters & glossies, drumming up support for the opera that blazed a glorious comet-trail of success across Europe last year (and the year before that), leaving critics and Janácek-martyrs alike breathless from Pierre Boulez's conducting with Patrice Chéreau's coup d'theatre.
After the Luc Bondy Tosca scuffle that opened the Metropolitan Opera's 2009/10 season, where boos rained-down from the offended, excitable self-appointed arbiters of the Family Circle ring, Gelb (and the rest of the world) now had a scarily-sobering barometer of what the Metropolitan audiences considered avant garde. And frankly, if Bondy's calm-as-a-kitten Tosca was treated by NYC audiences like Calixto Bieito's fisting/S&M visions of proctological Regie, one should definitely worry about the well-being of Chéreau. So Gelb rode weary his House of the Dead warpath, proclaiming the Met's "theatrical renaissance", relying on free panels and local news promos to ingratiate Janácek to the people. Did all that exhausting work deliver a nice payload? Well, last night, OC witnessed one of the longest MET curtain calls that she's ever lingered for (c'mon...while we Milanese stick around for 20+ headline-breaking minutes of applause, those serious businessmen NY'ers rush out do their serious businessmen things). All in all, a nice reception for Patrice Chéreau's house debut.
And so last night premiered Leoš Janácek’s last opera, From the House of the Dead, never before staged in the MET's history. It's okay. There's a time and place for that strict, uncompromising Czech a$$hole. And that time is now...the lean, streamlined version from Chéreau's body-of-work that teasingly floats hope and morality millimeters away from Janácek’s harrowing score, love and pity closely intertwined. The opera is an assemblage of unsentimental, unflinching scenes from Dostoyevsky's book of the same name (without narrative thrust or clear protagonists) of his 4 years spent in a Siberian gulag. A poignant, cinematic treatment, including the English titles that were projected on the back of the scenery, fittingly like film noir.As OC heard here at the Met Panel, Chéreau hired professional actors to mix with the singers to heighten his desired theatrical conventions. Railing against the powers that have locked them in, each prisoner is a distinct entity, uplifting and full of humility in the face of oppression. Here we have no hardened criminals resigned to do their time lifting weights and reading the bible (and getting crappy tattoos)...we have instead humble men, spurned on by survival and clutching to the last remnants of hope, whether it be a stuffed eagle that spirits the men to their imaginations or remembrance of landscapes past.
Chéreau's production team seamlessly wove an opera that transported the Metropolitan Opera audiences from the massive, sterile maw of that cosmopolitan stage to Vienna or Amsterdam or Aix-en-Provence (heck, even Milan where "Da una casa di morti" will premiere in March 2010).
Longtime Chéreau collaborator and French set designer Richard Peduzzi, who was responsible for that Tosca that ya'll hated so much (OMG *that's* not what an Italian church looks like!) erected large gray massive walls that opened and closed as the opera progressed; Associate director Thierry Thieû Niang choreographed the excellent prison secks pantomime, homage to the French ballet interludes so cherished in traditional opera; French costume designer Caroline de Vivaise had a very Max Ernst vision and color palette, perfectly visualized with every detail caressed; Lighting maestro Bertrand Couderc expertly fluctuated from creamy rose-tinged washes to golden afternoons to soul-baring, psychopathic whites.
Former MD of the the L.A. Phil Esa-Pekka Salonen made his house debut last night, presenting a score full of clarity and vibrant light, saddled with lush romanticism and a buoyancy that echoed Dostoevsky's book: cruel human trauma suffused with wit and an underlying sense of hope. For Esa-Pekka to carry off such a sound at the cavernous and impersonal auditorium of the MET was quite a skill indeed. An unforgiving, unflinching mastery, Esa-Pekka plowed ahead ruthlessly in a soaring, expressive dialog with his singers on-stage, never rushing never overshadowing.Towering Swedish baritone Peter Mattei sang Shishkov, the prisoner with the most intricate past, effectively pushing his character through all the phases of remembrance and retribution. Czech tenor Stefan Margita as Filka/Luka sang effectively and cunningly, American tenor Kurt Streit as the psychotic Skuratov was a standout, with the remainder of the main characters -- British tenor Peter Hoare as Shapkin and bass-baritone Willard White as Gorianchikov -- wonderfully rounding-out the corps of political prisoners.
Are American opera audiences ready to accept what the Europeans/Brits so easy recognize -- that there exists in this scarily-big world production-driven performances and that the singers themselves don't always have to be the ticket-sellers? Let's hope that Chéreau effectively indoctrinates, prison secks included.