Until December the 2nd, the Opera of Paris welcomes Janáček’s “From the House of the Dead” in Patrice Chéreau’s mythical production. It is even a double tribute to the director who passed away in 2013, since an exhibition*, dedicated to him, is currently at the Palais Garnier (until next March)
This show, which was premiered in 2007 at the Wiener Festwochen in Amsterdam and at Aix-en-Provence, was re-recorded for a DVD released by Deutsche Grammophon. Together with the legendary Bayreuth’s Ring (1976), this is certainly one of the most powerful and accomplished productions by Patrice Chéreau. A lot of expectations surround this “new production”, not really new… but really expected.
The composer’s libretto is directly based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Memories of the House of the Dead (Записки из Мёртвого дома) where the writer recalls his own experience in prison. The strength of this opera and of Chéreau’s work is to create, starting from a combination of scenes of trivial looks, an infinitely poetic and striking narration, to show the ordinary (men waiting to eat, dressing after their shower…) to reveal its universal and symbolic dimension.
We are struck by this complete and coherent spectacle. Soon, one no longer distinguishes the music played by the orchestra, the singing, the acting and the staging. Everything fits so well and fits so perfectly that even the ringing of the chains attached to the prisoners’ feet turns into a musical and dramatic element.
We admire the meticulous reconstitution of Chéreau’s work**, this unique setting, at once sober and majestic, gigantic and oppressive, imagined by Richard Peduzzi. We appreciate the actor’s play : fine, violently realistic, brilliantly directed, as groups as well as individuals.
As such, the theatre scene (in Act II) is a model of its kind : literally located at the centre of the workplace, the scene shows some prisoners performing for the other prisoners, themselves sitting on bleachers facing the audience. This brief moment in which convicts entertain themselves and escape the horror of their confinement – and where warm colours temporarily emerge amidst grey and brown costumes – is fascinating and moving.
Boulez has passed away. Today, it’s Esa-Pekka Salonen who backs up this work of resurrection : his clear and analytical direction is a perfect reflection of Janáček’s complex writing and sometimes even aggressive musical style. Playing on the orchestra’s ostinati, he gives the score a truly overwhelming dimension, from the tragic Ouverture. Despite its briefs interventions, the Paris Opera chorus shows a particularly beautiful sound quality.
On the stage, the cast is almost ideal and brings together a panoply of singers with extremely diverse tones (an essential quality since the cast is almost exclusively male). We should quote each of the interpreters of the evening, but we will here limit ourselves to insist on the projection and diction qualities of Peter Hoare, and on Willard White, whose voice, though damaged, serves an overwhelming incarnation of Gorjančikov, at first as a humiliated prisoner undressed in front of his fellow prisoners, and whose liberation then seems to give a renewed sense of hope for the future. Eric Stoklossa also receives a deserved triumph for his touching and youthful interpretation of Aljeja.
Finally, we can only bow to Peter Mattei’s Šiškov, a poignant and extraordinary performer full of musicality. His story in the last act, led by a virile, powerful and large voice, is tense and captivating from beginning to end.
The last images linger in mind: An eagle, mistreated during the first scene, but which finally becomes a symbol of temporary hope. A curtain closing on a man’s body lying in a fetal position, alone, in the centre of the stage. It was an unforgettable show: strong, troubling and wonderfully conceived.