From the House of the Dead
Peter Rose, Evgeniya Sotnikova, Aleš Briscein, Charles Workman, Bo Skovhus et al (voices); Bavarian State Orchestra; Bavarian Opera Choir/Simone Young; Dir. Frank Castorf (Munich, 2018)
Bel Air Classiques DVD: BAC173 Blu-ray: BAC 573 97:00 mins
It’s an indictment of our times that From the House of the Dead, Janáček’s final opera, has not so much become an historical drama but gained resonance. The gulags may be (sort of) gone, but so much about the work speaks to our present condition – so much indeed that the opera seems to have become catnip for contemporary directors. But ironically, in making it self-consciously modern, Frank Castorf’s theatrically brilliant staging from Munich seems to tear the heart out of the piece. It is certainly hard to recognise Janáček’s motto – ‘In every creature, a spark of God’ – here: this production’s somewhat extreme view of humanity leaves rather little redemption on show, surely a negation of what motivated Janáček’s adaptation of Dostoyevsky in the first place.
What Castorf gives us instead is a show about prison life. Cyrillic writing, from a neon-lit Pepsi sign to copies of the Izvestianewspaper, locates the action still firmly in Russia, but that doesn’t preclude a parade of other imagery – include sinister Día de Muertos costumes. Aleksandar Denić’s set is ingenious, combining elements of a prison watch-house with a Russian Orthodox cupola and much else, and must have looked striking on the Bavarian State Opera’s big stage, but close-up camera work emphasises the expressionistic nightmare aspect of it all.
The humanity is in the music, of course, and especially here in Simone Young’s interpretation, softer-edged than some but lacking nothing in theatrical flow. Standing out from an excellent cast are Bo Skovhus’s powerful Šiškov, his body and face covered in sores, and Peter Rose’s compassionate Gorjančikov, the political prisoner whose arrival and departure frame the action. Evgeniya Sotnikova sings warmly as Aljeja – dressed in feathers as an exotic dancer to double as the eagle in one of the production’s cleverer ideas.