Debut, debut, debut for the Metropolitan Opera's encroaching premiere of Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, which drops to the delight of OC (and her European brethren in NYC) on November 12.The Czech opera, the last penned in Janáček's career, has never before been staged in the MET's entire history -- quite fittingly adept for producer Patrice Chéreau and Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen's house debuts next week. Thanks to The Gelbster, Americans will be privy to a (variation of a) production that blazed through cultural headlines in prestigious dailies abroad as a roundly bulletproof work, and untouchable coup d'theatre that had critics and Janáček fetishists (OC fits in somewhere on that spectrum) clamoring for tickets.
Pierre Boulez, who had conducted the FTHOTD European runs, bowed out of the USA duties, citing travel preparations as just too strenuous for his advanced years (the reality is, he actually thinks we're all barbarians over here in the Colonies). Picking up the baton is former MD of the LA Phil, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who joined Gelb and Patrice Chéreau, glorious Frenchman and stage, film, and opera director (who could easily be a 007 film extra/James Bond advisor) on stage last night in a free chat with future ticket holders about their gloriously terrifying Janáček vision.
In what Gelb called a theatrical renaissance for the MET, Patrice Chéreau is undoubtedly most qualified to breathe life into Gelb's inspired strategy -- first known to the opera masses after a 1976 Bayreuth Ring cycle, although past collaborations with theater luminaries such as Giorgio Strehler at Milan's Piccolo Teatro mark his long, theatrical career. Although Chéreau may have been the most appealing project leader, he petitioned for many stipulations regarding the Czech opera. He hired professional actors to mix with the singers, as his vision for effectively presenting the opera relied on a predominantly theatrical convention. Also, main characters have to spend the evening completely untethered without the aid of a prompter, as Chéreau wanted the actors absolutely focused on personal interactions. Nor was the prompter's box harmonic with the clean visual aesthetics of the stage setting, carefully planned by French set designer Richard Peduzzi (longtime Chéreau collaborator who also designed the sets for Tosca).In co-production with Vienna, Amsterdam, and Aix-en-Provence, what unfolds on stage for the MET is markedly different than what has been seen in Europe, along with a new crop of singers and actors. Even costume designer Caroline de Vivaise stepped it up for the cast: after vacationing in Hungary and exploring the local flea markets, new inspirations came for guard and prisoner costumes, each painstakingly chosen to match the idiosyncrasies of each singer. Swedish baritone Peter Mattei sings Shishkov, Czech tenor Stefan Margita sings Filka Morozov, American tenor Kurt Streit sings Skuratov, British tenor Peter Hoare sings Shapkin, and bass-baritone Willard White sings Gorianchikov, and will all have their turns at encapsulating the trenchant themes of hope and survival, the steely pulse of Dostoevsky's book, written after spending soul-crushing years in a Siberian gulag.
After the MET run, FTHOTD heads to Milan in March 2010 where Scala gets its horny hands on it -- this time as Da una casa di morti where Esa-Pekka Salonen and crew get to kick up their post-game heels at Da Giacomo over steaming plates of garganelli alla bottarga, and Opera Chic will be throwing her Carine Gilson handmade panties -- well, culottes, actually -- in the orchestra pit, hoping E-Pek catches them.