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As if in a dark mirror
Dmitri Tcherniakov directs From the House of the Dead in Bochum (*****) [live]
Author : Jos Hermans
"From the House of the Dead" reconstructs a penal camp situation. It is a men's opera without a real plot in which women appear only indirectly but are constantly the subject of conversation. On a first reading, it might seem that the composer has burned out as a creative force. The overture recalls the life-affirming music from "The Cunning Little Vixen," and Janáček seems to recycle from earlier work without coming up with big, new, original musical ideas. But the tonal language of late is even more radical than before. The whole work is a maelstrom of short motifs that Janáček knits together with incredible imagination and which he passes on in turns to the various instrument groups. With the House of the Dead, it is very important to read the text thoroughly beforehand so that you can ignore the surtitles and concentrate on the music and the declamation rhythm of the vocal parts. Dennis Russell Davies aptly sums it up by saying: "“Much is told between the lines through the atmosphere of the music, through its melodic and harmonic content. There are relatively few sung melodies that you take home with you at the end of the evening, but much that the orchestra plays is impossible to get out of your ears.”
Dmitri Tcherniakov's explanatory comments usually begin with "I don't believe in...". Tcherniakov claims to be able to stage only what he can truly believe in. It is there that things often go wrong. Here he says: "I do not believe in the statement Janáček makes in his epigraph 'in every creature a divine spark'. This statement is conciliatory and foggy. It is much more interesting to find out where the inherent capacity to be an executioner lies in people." The latter is a quote from Dostoevsky. "We do not know how far we would be willing to go, what red lines we would cross. We don't know how we would act under the worst circumstances," the director clarifies.
Actually, we do know. There are too many psychopaths in positions of power in our world. Haven’t we seen this with astonishment on many occasions during the last three years? The ease with which people conformed to the tyranny of runaway authorities was astounding. We almost found ourselves in penal camps of the kind Dostoevsky wrote about in his "Notes from a Dead House," the account of his four-year stay as a political prisoner in Siberia.
How directors turn their particular use of the theatrical space into a compelling concept is the thrill of every performance of one of our familiar operas at Bochum's Jahrhunderthalle. Almost the entire long corridor of the immense industrial cathedral is played. The action will move twice over the course of the evening in accordance with the three acts, each time drawing in the surrounding audience. On either side of the playing surface, Tcherniakov has built scaffolding that serves as three-story side lodges. A small portion of the audience shares the floor with the chorus and soloists. It is indistinguishable from the inmates and sometimes must defy their gazes or tolerate their touches. This virtually eliminates the fourth wall between audience, chorus and soloists.
As Dennis Russell Davies rightly suggests, the orchestra takes the leading role. Dozens of monitors are set up along the length of the hall for contact with the conductor. Supertitles are in English and German. The orchestra is seated sideways but also plays the room through loudspeakers. This turns out to be a very adequate solution making use of Thomas Wegners sophisticated sound design. Janáček's great score does not have to suffer and the Bochumer Symphoniker manages to squeeze all the sensuousness out of it. Whether the ingenious sound amplification which I have explicitly praised before was actually employed on behalf of the singers is not entirely clear to me. After all, the contact with the audience is intense and the soloists and chorus members do not wear microphones. Except Leigh Melrose, and he happened to sound phenomenally good in terms of projection. Did he enjoy the support of the sound engineer ? If so, this is yet another confirmation of the quality of the audio system first used in Bochum during Das Rheingold in 2015. I was standing two meters away from him and can testify that you really can't hear that some of the sound is coming from speakers.
Fortunately, the terrific overture lasts long enough to demonstrate the daily fun and violence of prison life. As the prisoners storm into the audience room from the depths of the factory hall, it is as if the overture was written for it. Among the 20-member chorus of the Brno National Opera are seven stuntmen from the Stunt Factory. It is the weaker ones who lose out. Noisy schadenfreude falls to them. Numerous fight scenes take up much of the first act, and Ran Arthur Braun has choreographed them very precisely.
When Alexandr Petrovič Goryančikov arrives at the camp as the odd man out, he is soon in his underwear getting a bucket of ice cold water poured over him. He is like a spectator and seems to adapt easily. In the second act, we see a truck driving down the hall announcing the holiday. The difficult to stage pantomimes "The play of Kedril and Don Juan" and "The play of the beautiful miller's wife," Tcherniakov turns into a hilarious mud fight. At the heart of the opera, however, are the stories of Luka, Skuratov, Šapkin and Šiškov in which they simultaneously present themselves as perpetrator and victim. It is here that we learn how people are capable of violence. Should we pity them or recoil from their terrible crimes? Or should we realize how much they look like us? It is this aspect of Janáček’s opera that is addressed more than ever in this immersive theater experience.
With pictures of their mothers, the prisoners apply for our sympathy. The third act finds its conclusion around three bare tables. After Šapkin mops the floor during his screwed-up monologue, it is Šiškov's turn. It is also a confrontation between Šiškov and Luka, and we see both initially sitting motionless on either side of the long table. Vocally, it is Šiškov who is given the most interesting music to sing, and Leigh Melrose, already a fantastic Alberich and Golaud at the Ruhrtriennale before, again stands out as the stage animal he usely is.
But what did Goryančikov's drawn-out scream mean during the very last bars of the piece after he has already done an exuberant dance of joy upon hearing the news of his release? The eagle, symbol of freedom, which the chorus sings about in the final bars, is nowhere to be seen. Gleb Filshtinsky's lighting direction switches between reality and illusion and freedom turns out to be an illusion! It is a coup de théâtre that cuts through marrow and bone.
With Johan Reuter as Goryančikov, Stefan Rügamer as Luka, John Daszak as Skuratov, Alexei Dolgov as Šapkin and Leigh Melrose as Šiškov, the Ruhrtriennale has provided a top-notch cast. The smaller roles were also well cast for instance with Peter Lobert as the camp commander. The poetic character of Aljejo (Bekhzod Davronov) was given little profile in this production.