A highly imaginative fusion of two late Janáček masterpieces in Brno

Czech RepublicCzech Republic Janáček, From the House of the Dead, Glagolitic Mass: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the National Theatre, Brno / Jakub Hrůša (Conductor), Livestreamed on OperaVision from the National Theatre, Brno, 6.11.2022 (RB)

From the House of the Dead (c) Marek Olbrzymek

Director – Jiří Heřman
Costumes – Tomáš Rusín
Lighting – Zuzana Štefunková Rusínová
Choreography – Jan Kodet
Dramaturgy – Patricie Částková
Chorus masters – Martin Buchta, Pavel Koňárek

From the House of the Dead
Alexander Petrovich Gorjanchikov – Roman Hoza
Luka – Filka Morozov / Cobbler’s Wife – Gianluca Zampieri
Skuratov/Priest’s Wife – Peter Berger
Shishkov/Miller – Pavol Kubáň
Prison Governor – Jan Šťáva
Aljeja – Jarmila Balážová
Eagle – Michal Heriban

Glagolitic Mass
Soprano – Kateřina Kněžíková
Alto – Jarmila Balážová, Jana Hrochová
Tenor – Peter Berger, Eduard Martyniuk
Bass – Jan Šťáva, Josef Škarka

This superb new production from the Janáček Festival in Brno fuses together two of the great works written towards the end of the composer’s life. From the House of the Dead was the composer’s final opera. Janáček adapted the libretto from Dostoevsky’s 1862 novel of the same name which describes life in a Siberian prison camp. It is constructed around three monologues delivered by Luka, Skuratov and Shishkov. The opera also depicts a touching friendship between the nobleman, Gorjanchikov, who is seen entering the prison at the beginning and leaving at the end, and a young Tartar, Aljeja. Janáček wrote, ‘In every creature, a spark of God’ at the beginning of the score and he was clearly interested in finding the humanity in these dark souls and redemption in this bleak setting. The Glagolitic Mass uses the old Slavic alphabet and it follows the five-movement format of the Catholic mass.

Jiří Heřman’s set used a variety of backdrops to depict the Siberian setting including frozen wastelands, natural settings and dark emerald forests. The opera opened showing a spreadeagled Christ-like figure (Michal Heriban) suspended in mid-air. This silent figure was present throughout the entire production: the crucified Christ suffered with the prisoners and comforted the hurt and oppressed. Chained prisoners rose on to the stage with their dark cells at the back providing an ominous backdrop. The prisoners were all bald and dressed in black and a number had black crosses painted on the back of their head.

In the second act we saw the prisoners working on a skeletal boat. The ensuing scene fused the sacred and the profane as a priest blessed the prisoners before they enacted a raunchy, humorous play about the final days of Don Juan. The Christ-like figure swooped in to cradle the injured Aljeja as the end of the act. The final act, which was set in a hospital ward, morphed imperceptibly into the performance of the Glagolitic Mass. The silent women in the opera were transformed into an angelic chorus all wearing white. As the movements of the Mass progressed, the performers created Christian tableaux including the Pietá and the Last Supper.

I was surprised how well the two works seemed to fit together so seamlessly. While the Christian symbolism might seem old fashioned in our cynical times, it reflected Janáček’s conception perfectly. The Christ in this production is the suffering servant of the irredeemable, the destitute and the oppressed. While many of the prisoners in the opera described the terrible crimes they committed, the production gave them a human face, reminding us of the need to see everyone as people.

Gianluca Zampieri, Peter Berger and Pavol Kubáň all acquitted themselves well in their respective monologues. There were some initial balance issues between Zampieri and the orchestra but these were quickly resolved. Zampieri’s dark timbres seemed to find the heart of darkness in his tale. Berger brought a rich luminous tone to Skuratov’s story while Kubáň acted out his monologue in a highly effective and dramatic way. Soprano Kateřina Kněžíková and tenor Peter Berger both sang beautifully in the Glagolitic Mass. The rest of the cast all acquitted themselves well. The chorus were terrific throughout the production both dramatically and musically. They displayed an impressive dynamic range and were highly effective in communicating Janáček’s idiosyncratic music.

Like the composer, conductor Jakub Hrůša is from Brno and he displayed a sophisticated understanding of the music. Hrůša will succeed Antonio Pappano as music director at the Royal Opera House from the 2024/25 season. He and the National Theatre Orchestra did an excellent job fusing together the spiky elements of the score with the highly expressive melodies. They brought enormous energy to the rhythmic ostinatos in the opera while capturing the shifts of mood and atmosphere. The strings seemed to relish the asymmetrical rhythms in the Glagolitic Mass while the brass and timpani brought out the underlying primitivism in the score.

This was a first-rate and highly imaginative production from the Janáček Festival.

Robert Beattie

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