Janacek: From the House of the Dead

WORKS: From the House of the Dead
PERFORMER: Olaf Bär, Stefan Margita, Peter Straka Vladimir Chmelo, Jiπí Sulzenko, Heinz ZedniΩk, John Mark Ainsley, Jan Galla, Tomá≥ Krejciπík, Martin Bárta, Gerd Grochowski; Arnold Schoenberg Chor, Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Pierre Boulez; dir.
CATALOGUE NO: 073 4426 (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16:9 picture format)
Presently the only DVD version of Janácek’s last opera, and it’s a good one – even if it doesn’t match the Scottish Opera/Welsh National staging many will remember. Boulez is quite open about his newness to the opera, describing it as ‘primitive’ compared to Wozzeck (albeit benignly) and its orchestration ‘raw’, saying that Janácek didn’t share Berg’s ‘sophistication’ – specious, surely, to compare such different idioms. Nevertheless he conducts a fluent, clearly textured and often very beautiful performance with the full grim finale, finely played by the Mahlerians, even if he doesn’t entirely ‘get’ Janácek’s spiky rhythmic expressiveness; it all sounds rather smooth compared to Mackerras on CD. On stage, though, there’s plenty of energy, sometimes too much. Patrice Chéreau injects Dostoevsky’s grim prison with a febrile asylum atmosphere, and curiously underplays the brutality – except in set designer Peduzzi’s all-purpose grey walls, disconcertingly like the team’s recent Tristan. Chéreau is better served by some excellent singer-acting, particularly from John Mark Ainsley as the hapless Skuratov, though he’s made a little too fey for this deranged soldier-murderer. Stefan Margita is less convincingly psychopathic as Morozov, and Jiπí Sulzenko’s Commandant is more offhand than brutish. The boy Alyeya is well sung by a young tenor, rather than soprano, more natural but lending less fatherly undertones to his touching relationship with the dissident Gorjancikov, a stolidly bewildered Olaf Bär. Grochowski’s Shishkov and the remaining cast are effective; Czech or non-Czech, their words sound adequately natural to non-native ears. On the other hand, the all-important eagle, symbol of spiritual freedom, is uninspiringly wooden. Michael Scott Rohan