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.