Janáček – Z mrtvého domu
Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov – Kay Stiefermann
Aljeja – Cameron Becker
Luka Kuzmič (Filka Morozov) – Tilmann Unger
Skuratov – Edward Mout
Šiškov – Antonio Yang
Prison Governor – Marcell Bakonyi
Big Prisoner/Voice – David Yim
Elderly Prisoner – Richard Kindley
Cook – Kang Wonyong
Priest – Rüdiger Krehbiel
Small Prisoner/Čekunov – Alexey Birkus
Drunk Prisoner – Chool Seomun
Šapkin – Hans Kittelmann
Blacksmith – Vikrant Subramanian
Prisoner/Don Juan/The Brahmin – Levent Bakirci
Young Prisoner/ Čerevin – Song Yongseung
Harlot – Lukas Christian Noerbel
Chor des Staatstheater Nürnberg, Staatsphilharmonie Nürnberg / Gábor Káli.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.
Staatstheater Nürnberg, Nürnberg, Germany. Sunday, May 15th, 2016.
The oppressiveness of masculinity and man’s cruelty to man has been a consistent theme in the work of Calixto Bieito and this staging of From the House of the Dead, previously seen in Basel, is no exception. The world of a prison, isolated from the rest of humanity, lends itself to such an interpretation but what I also found, is that Bieito appeared to completely capture the prison world as depicted in Dostoevsky’s novel – a place in which nobody is ever alone, and a place in which various strata of power relations guide life. Interestingly, this was an all-male production with Aljeja and the Harlot being sung by tenors.
One noticeable feature of Janáček’s opera is that, with the exception of the theatrical scene in Act 2, there is no conventional narrative. Instead, individuals appear from within the ensemble to tell their story. Bieito gives us intricately detailed personenregie where scores of individuals each have a different story to tell and do so through their acting as well as through their singing. Every single participant on stage is a fully living and breathing personality. One character runs around to relieve his boredom; others play soccer with a makeshift ball, while another stands, staring into the distance. In a way, it’s impossible to take these all in on a first viewing, yet what this approach succeeds in doing, is that it perfectly sets up and maintains precisely that constant impression of never being left alone and the micro-society that operates within the prison walls. The implications of what happens in the shadows can be as important as what happens at the front of the stage.
Violence and sex are constant presences, at times in combination. At one point there’s a moment of dark humour, where in the pantomime the prisoner playing the Mayor’s wife simulates fellatio and we discover that she spits rather than swallows. The way the prisoners interact is based on violent physical contact – frequent pushing and hitting – and as the evening progresses and the prisoners lose control of each other, there can only be one end with many of them being shot to death. Aljeja is brutally raped – out of sight I hasten to add – but is left barely able to move due to his injuries. Graphic certainly, but also completely in keeping with setting of the work and undoubtedly realistic and true to a compelling reading of the text.
What the evening also left with me is how completely connected the stage narrative is with the music. In the prologue, as the orchestra plays the ‘gospodi pomiluj’ motif familiar from the Glagolitic Mass, we see one of the prisoners crossing himself and covering himself with water. The eagle is a cardboard plane that Aljeja made and, as a metaphor for freedom, suggests that it might have been the way that he and the others were brought to the prison. Indeed, in Act 2 a large aircraft descends from the flies and the prisoners haul it as part of their hard labour. The closing scene sees the plane ascending again, thereby reinforcing the prisoners’ captivity and inability to escape. The futility of captivity is reinforced as Gorjančikov is shot dead by the guard at the end. The effect was overwhelming. Throughout the course of the evening we were led to feel sympathy for Gorjančikov and Aljeja in particular and any hope that we might have had for their eventual freedom is completely dashed.
Musically there were many good things. The quality of the Nürnberg ensemble really is excellent and there wasn’t a single weak link throughout the cast. In such a large ensemble it feels almost churlish to pick out individuals but I would like to draw attention to a selection of performances. Antonio Yang was a highly compelling Šiškov. His is a generously-sized baritone with a solid and slightly grainy tone. It’s a full-bodied sound with an easy top with the registers fully integrated and emissions even. His big scene was absolutely gripping, culminating in massive vocal power as he recognizes Filka. Kay Stiefermann was an aristocratic Gorjančikov, the tone rich and the line eloquent but also manifested through his physical demeanour, even when dressed in prison clothes, the way he carried himself seemed to belong to another world from his fellow convicts. Cameron Becker’s Aljeja was sung in an extremely appealing, plangent and distinctive tenor and he’s certainly a singer I’d like to hear again.
In the remainder of the cast Marcell Bakonyi was a handsome voiced Governor and Levent Bakirci distinguished himself with a wonderfully attractive baritone, one I’d love to hear as Don Giovanni one day. Hans Kittelmann’s Šapkin had a bright tenor with a striking fast vibrato. Every single singer sang and acted with total and unequivocal commitment, inspiring admiration for their full and unstinting dedication. Some even carried their characters through to the curtain calls.
The chorus sang with excellent blend, tight ensemble and impeccable tuning. The difficult unaccompanied harmonies in Act 3 were tackled with ease. The orchestra sounded slightly less confident,with the tuning in the strings somewhat less unanimous. Gábor Káli really brought out the seemingly paradoxical objectives of ensuring rhythmic propulsion while bringing out the lyricism where required and he also got some playing of real personality from the clarinets and trumpets. It was certainly a well-paced reading and, apart for a very few split notes here and there, the brass and wind playing was excellent.
The Staatstheater Nürnberg now offers English surtitles alongside the German and the work really benefitted from being sung in Czech today. Every member of the cast sounded fully secure with the language and hearing Janáček’s uniquely Czech speech rhythms so confidently sung was a pleasure. This staging is a compelling meditation on the horror of captivity and man’s cruelty to man. In its intricate detail it tells the story of so many and is an ambitious and brave piece of music theatre, performed today with complete commitment and extremely high musical values.