The last ever work of early 20th century Czech composer Leoš Janáček comes to the stage at La Monnaie this November. For those unaccustomed to the grandeur of the operatic form, this story based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel is an excellent entrance into the world of contemporary opera. Encompassing all things tragic, beautiful and modernist, here are our five reasons to go and see From the House of the Dead.
Visuals Covent Garden (c)
First things first: the story. Fyodor Dostoyevsky published From the House of the Dead in 1862. Years later in 1930, Leoš Janáček’s opera premiered posthumously at National Theatre Brno. Following its first run at Covent Garden in London earlier this year, the opera opens at La Monnaie in November. The story has been through an evolution: it sensitively tells of Dostoyevsky’s own personal experience as a political prisoner in a Siberian gulag. At the root of the novel lies the author’s cold and often unlikable characters, echoing the experiences of his fellow inmates. Lurking in this complex characterisation, however, is an uplifting meditation on brotherhood and self-empowerment.
Amongst many characters, the stage takes you through the lives of aristocratic Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov (played by living legend, British-Jamaican bass baritone Sir Willard White), the mentally fragile Skuratov and the love tragedy of Šiškov. And yet, this performance features no main character and no linear plot – instead the collective takes centre stage in all their polyphonic glory. There is a sense that character here is part of an empathetic and wider communal whole. Without conventional structures, the opera aims to delight in the meaning offered by music itself.
With productions behind him such as Médée, Macbeth, Lulu and Don Giovanni, Krzysztof Warlikowski brings his tried and tested directorial mind to this performance. In his interpretation, Warlikowski hauls the Russian novel into a contemporary setting: a maximum security prison that documents life under oppression. The Polish director is one of the leading lights in the European theatre, celebrated for his psychological precision, the non-conformism of his dramaturgical readings and his idiosyncratic visual language.
Capturing the realist sentiment of Dostoyevsky’s novel for the operatic form, Leoš Janáček’s writing grounds the language in “speech melodies”. Janáček himself spent years studying the creation of a “melodic curve” that he supposed was meant to “reveal immediately a human being in one definite phase of his existence”. There is a focus on colloquial conversation in Czech, which is transferred to the dramaturgy on stage. The German conductor Michael Boder will communicate these thought processes with the support of La Monnaie’s male chorus and Symphony Orchestra, for a performance that is altogether a sentient reworking of Dostoyevsky; one that blends music and drama in a modernist synthesis.
Since the 1960s, conductors have traditionally preferred Janáček’s original score. In the absence of a final version, however, it allows for further fleshing out. As of 2017, a new critical edition by musicologist John Tyrrell has been published, whose recent passing sees the production dedicated in his name. This performance hopes, therefore, to showcase this new addition and to add to the discourse that From the House of the Dead has been a part of for so long. Whilst the work is tied inextricably to Dostoevsky’s world and to Janáček’s early twentieth century composition, it hopes to meld these two for the present audience, and remind us of empathetic, human universals that are transcultural and transhistorical. It is an opera more than anything characterised by evolution and by polarities: the traditional and the innovated, the tragic and the lyrical, the desperate and the hopeful.Running from Tuesday 6th to Saturday 17th of November. lamonnaie.be