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Strange how some composers are lucky on dvd, others can't buy a decent performance.
This issue of "From the House of the Dead" means we now have on dvd all of Janacek's operas from Jenufa on in excellent to outstanding performances. Meanwhile poor old Britten still has to make do with some very watery attempts at his works.
It's not as if Janacek's operas are a shoo-in. There isn't a long performing tradition outside of his home country (maybe that helps), the operatic world isn't overrun with singers able/capable of singing in Czech, the music is less than familiar to most orchestras and some of the plots are rather off-beat. Here we have Dostoyevsky's prison memoirs set in what, at first sight, seems like a loosely-connected series of tableaux, with no female singers and so scene changes to speak of. That the whole thing succeeds triumphantly speaks volumes for composer as well as performers.
I was gripped from first note to last, spellbound by the music, the story, the acting. Boulez wouldn't be my first choice in Janacek and I have to say I missed some of the insights a conductor like Andrew Davis brings to this composer. But that's a minor quibble. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra plays for him like inspired angels. On stage, the overall quality of acting sets a new benchmark in my experience. Acting in operas has taken a quantum leap in recent years, perhaps because the camera demands so much more. What passes from the Upper Circle just will not do under the scrutiny of the lens. We see every facial tic at camera distance and can pick up on what is going through the singers' minds. If they're only half there, as in (Netrebko excepted) the recent Met I Puritani, we might as well switch off and follow the work sound-only.Read more ›
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I bought this opera on spec, so to speak. It is excellently produced and played and sung. The music is typically Janacek, with the orchestra doing most of the thematic work and the singers doing something akin to recitative above the orchestra. The story is mostly grim. It was based on a book by Dostoyevsky, after all, but is always absorbing. If you like Janacek you will like this.
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56 of 57 people found the following review helpful
A searing and memorable final production from Boulez and ChereauApril 23 2008
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Janacek's final opera, composed in 1927-28 and given its posthumous premiere two years later, is based on the Dostoyevsky novel written in 1861-62 in which the author renders his own prison experiences. The story as seen in the opera is not presented in a linear fashion, rather it is like a Robert Altman film such as Nashville or Short Cuts where an ensemble cast presents several intertwined stories of a disparate nature and with varied emotional impact. Janacek chose six characters and their compelling stories to focus on, reducing the novel's sprawling, amorphous structure into a more manageable form. The selection by Janacek is masterful: we are drawn into this bleak world with its ever-present despair and random violence because we identify with the plight of the inmates. It is a world later visited by Kafka, cold gray prison walls functioning as real and metaphorical agent of enslavement. It is the perfect paradigm of the twentieth century.
Janacek's music is astringent, slightly dissonant but tonal and often strangely lyrical. The amazing musical renaissance of his final years, one in which he discovered his true musical voice during his sixth decade, is reminiscent of Rameau. This uniquely modern lyricism and his expert choice of material makes Janacek one of the most important opera composers of the early 20th century. If you are unfamiliar with his work, this DVD is a fine place to begin. It is a superb performance in every way. Boulez conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Arnold Schoenberg Chor with his typical steely precision. His emphasis on sonority is perfect for this opera. Voices and instruments are sharply defined, crystalline in sound but without brittleness. The conductor's musical vision is like an edifice built of soft marble: the structure is polished and solid, adamantine but pliable. The effect is both warmly human and coldly monumental. It is a fierce, incendiary performance that will leave you marveling at how much impact a 100 minute opera can provide.
In director Patrice Chereau's brilliant 2007 production, all of the singers are splendid. This is a true ensemble performance. The costumes are nothing more than the filthy rags of the gulag. It is not pretty, nor should it be. The set consists of towering gray prison walls enclosing a drab, depressing prisonyard. The angular walls suggest a massive, impersonal labyrinth. The sole symbol of hope in this sorrowful opera is a tattered wounded eagle: much like Beckett's solitary tree, with its single leaf tenuously fluttering in the breeze, in Waiting for Godot. The images are searing but disturbingly familiar, for this universe is also wounded. The random brutality we witness is life in its most basic and cruel guise. We spend all of our lives trying to keep this version of life at bay. We don't always succeed. This opera is for those times. You won't soon forget this masterful production.
The opera was filmed in July 2007 in high definition and looks splendid. Sound in PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 is crystal clear. The DVD contains a 48 minute bonus making of film as well as the 100 minute opera. There are the usual DGG menus.
One of the finest DVDs of the year, this is an exemplary performance that is most strongly recommended.
39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
The living deadApril 23 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
Prior to watching this, I had never seen or heard this opera before, but I like Janacek, love Dostoevsky, so I thought I would give it a try. Good call. From the House of the Dead is a bleak but essential opera, and Stephan Metge's film of Patrice Chereau's dank, foggy, severe staging makes for a powerful viewing experience. Almost from the first note I fell in love with Janacek's score. The composer has created a brilliant melange of lyricism and dissonance where the orchestration is more important than the vocalism. The singing in this opera is non-melodic, at times sparse, austere, almost conversational. What melodies there are are all contained within the instrumental portion of the score, it's Janacek's schizophrenic orchestration that sets the mood, creates tension and individualizes the characters. And the tension rarely comes to a stop, even when very little is happening onstage.
Based on Dostoevsky's experiences in a Siberian prison camp, Janacek's opera has no real story, although it begins with the imprisonment of a nobleman and ends with his freedom. Not much happens over the course of three acts, yet we learn about the lives of some of the prisoners, the crimes they committed that brought them there, almost uniformly crimes of passion(Janacek, wisely, doesn't ask us to sympathize with the crimes, he only wants us to respect the incarcerated as flawed beings). There is a strange lack of regret among the men, almost as if the years of being jailed have beaten much of their feeling out of them, other than their loneliness, plus traces of anger and sadness for what's been lost. By the time we meet them the men are threadbare, submissive, seemingly robbed of their passions, a far cry from the hotheads sent to prison for giving in to their violent desires. Yet these men are far from dead. They tend to an injured eagle and revel in its eventual freedom, show an interest in each other's histories, and enthusiastically perform a couple of pantomimes that, like Hamlet's play within a play, have relevance to the bigger picture. Occasionally, they turn their suppressed rage against each other. They even form bonds, the most of touching of which develops between the nobleman(the newcomer among the bunch) and a young, heartsick prisoner who seems to have captured the sympathies of almost the entire population. Although the details of their friendship are given only a small amount of attention, at least in the larger scheme of the opera as a whole(the older man teaches the younger to read and write and through this becomes a paternal figure), the audience has no trouble feeling empathy, and being moved by their bittersweet separation which comes at the end of the piece. This is partly because of Janacek's music, his mastery at subtly painting an emotional connection, a dramatic minimalism so to speak(this opera has not a trace of melodrama except for that which is contained within the various prisoners' narratives) and partly because the prisoners as a whole converge into a single collective character, forcing the audience to connect with each experience. No prisoner's story has any real precedence, and yet they all manage to be effective. Hence, the title House of the Dead becomes ironic; the prisoners, despite their disenfranchisement, despite having a good deal of their vitality drained out of them by years of isolation, are still very much alive.
This production takes place before an audience, but it looks more like a film than the typical taping of a live performance, and the audience doesn't even realize that it is live until the curtain drops on the final act. Chereau and Metge have created a stark look for the film, effectively creating a sense of imprisonment and deprivation, which contrasts to a certain extent with Janacek's mood-swinging music, running the gamut of emotions, but is appropriate for the overall feel of the piece. There is little hope in the narrative and therefore in the lighting, sets, costumes or camerawork; even the ending, when both the eagle and the nobleman are released into the wide open, is handled in a delicate and non-commital manner rather than being celebratory. Nonetheless the opera and film do manage to be uplifting, in their own way, and the emotional effect is as overpowering as Verdi or Wagner while lacking those composers' sweep(which would have been inappropriate here). Despite the subject matter, this work of art goes beyond simply being disturbing, thanks to the fact that it is empowered by a heart and a soul.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
A powerful Z Mrtvého DomuApril 21 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
This is the best opera DVD I watched lately.
From the House of the Dead is a great 20th century opera, realizing miraculously the essence of Dostoevsky novel Notes from the Dead House. There is no narrative to the opera as a whole, but individual characters narrate episodes in their lives, which are focused on the reasons for their imprisonment.
The very unique team of conductor Pierre Boulez and stage director Patrice Chereau has done it again after their legendary collaboration in the late seventies Bayreuth Ring. This is a powerful and very moving production of the opera. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra plays outstandingly for Boulez, who said lately that this is the last opera production he will participate. From the House of the Dead is definitely a great choice. Every one in the large cast of male singers is excellent both in singing and acting. Boulez and Chereau decision to give the role of the young prisoner Aleyeya to a tenor (The young German tenor Erik Stokloßa) proves to be a brilliant idea. One should mention John Mark Ainsley who does an especially great job as Skuratov.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Stunning!April 28 2008
G P Padillo
- Published on Amazon.com
What an emotionally harrowing experience is watching this opera for the first time.
Stephane Metge has made a film using the production by Patrice Chereau and Pierre Boulez (together again 30 some years after their famous Bayreuth Ring) and what a film it is.
Boulez, almost literally seems to conjure this stunning performance from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. From its haunting, jangly opening I was brought to mind of Strauss and Prokofiev and how all three use the orchestral colors in the boldest possible - and not always most subtle ways. The score is a wonder of violence, tenderness, dreamlike and gritty realism. It is magnificent.
Metge's camera work gets right into the middle of things, roaming through Richard Peduzzi's stark mile high walls with a voyueristic violence that thrusts the viewer into the world of this terrible place. Pulling episodes from Dostoevsky's tale, Janacek's opera is virtually plotless, yet this which is not to say "nothing happens" because there is plenty to focus on, as these hapless gulag prisoners live, suffer, dance, dream and reminisce of their lives outside these walls. Note I didn't say dream "of happier times" for the stories they tell of their pre-prison lives are as terrifying and violent as the world they create for themselves within the walls.
As Alexandr, Olaf Bar's entrance is terrifying stuff, clearly a man of some means, besuited and bespectacled, the guards and inmates encircle and strip him, hurling his glasses into the courtyard. When he later emerges near the end of the act, filthy, shackled, and blindly crawling across ground, it's tough not to weep But, as in life, there are occasional acts of kindness and one such here between Alexandr and the boy prisoner Aljeja (a remarkable and heartbreaking performance by young tenor Eric Stoklossa) is sufficient to remind us these are still human beings, still part of the family of man, still "us."
John Mark Ainsley is a riveting presence throughout giving seering performance as Skuratov. Mad with grief, and imprisoned "for falling in love" - we watch his pathetic tale played out as he changes his garments, his mind seeming to hold the focus of his love story to keep him centered - but clearly not working. Mostly silent during the 3rd act, Ainsley still manages to give a tour de force performance - simultaneously chilling and touching. It is a stand out performance from an ensemble filled with amazing work.
The at the center of the second act - and perhaps the longest sequence of the opera - is a harrowing "pageant" a ballet of depraved sexuality played out by some of the prisoners for the entertainment of the rest of the gulag. The symbolic meanings of what goes on are made clear without feeling obvious. It is stunningly choreographed (as is most of the movement seen throughout) by Chereau's collaborator Theirry Thieu Niang.
Centering on the lives and stories of these men, Chereau tends to keep the spectacles down, but he cannot resist giving us several arresting coups de theatre, particularly at the end of each act. Each of these is, in their own way, visually stunning and complimentary to Janacek's amazing score.
Everything comes together perfectly, every element of the score, drama, characterizations and visual elements serves to bring this difficult work to life and when it's brief 100 minutes are over, every feeling, every emotion was felt both deep in my bones and raw on the surface.
There is a fascinating 48 minute feature on the "making of" this production which, likewise, is not to be missed.
I am thrilled that the Metropolitan Opera will be featuring this production in its 2009/10 season and wild horses won't be able to keep me from being there.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
excellent late JanacekApril 23 2008
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I have no idea how this compares to Charles MacKerras' cd versions of the opera, nor do I care - I'm keeping both (I own the Decca/Vienna Phil. recording from MacKerras). Watching this on dvd brings the story and action to a whole different level, especially when the acting is as visceral and excellent as it is here. Of course, the real star of the show is Janacek's amazing orchestral score (for me, anyway), and the Gustav Mahler Chamber Orch. do an outstanding job from start to finish. Even if you don't find Janacek's vocal writing to your liking (don't look for many pretty arias here), or the story too unsavory, "FTHOTD" still possesses one of the greatest opera preludes ever composed. This may seem like a petty detail, but I like it that the camera cuts to the percussionist who's lifting and shaking the chains - as in the prisoner's chains! - during the prelude.
Also enjoyable for me is a series of different rehearsal segments, added as a bonus. In one bit of footage, Chereau is giving incredibly minute acting instructions (more like coaching) for the sequence where some of the prisoners put on a play for the others. Another rehearsal segment has Boulez going through bits of the prelude, leading into the start of Act 1. As could be expected, Boulez is very careful and precise with rhythm and balances. Interesting stuff.
Bottom line: if you have the slightest interest in late Janacek; Dostoevsky realized; Boulez, as a conductor; great opera dvd's in general, whatever - GET THIS!