Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Come On-A My House

November 22, 2009

Kurt Streit and cast
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

This trip out of town is really all about Leos Janacek. Or at least his operas, which are probably some of the most important of the 20th century. Of course, they were largely under recognized in Europe for decades outside of his native country until Sir Charles Mackerras, among others, began to advocate for them more seriously as early as the 1950s. Janacek’s works are still somewhat under appreciated in the U.S. The relatively few existing productions of the operas are shared between American houses on the occasions they do pop up in the schedule. So, when any house puts on a production of one of his operas, it's still an event of sorts. When that house is the Metropolitan Opera and it’s a work like From the House of the Dead, it is most definitely an event. Of course, what’s onstage now is not really a new production in that Patrice Chéreau’s poetic, theatrical staging has been seen in many other cities throughout Europe on its co-production course. It’s even available on DVD already making a high profile HD broadcast to theaters redundant. But the Met's Peter Gelb was wise enough to sign on as a co-producer of the show, which has arrived in New York where it is a bracing tonic in a house still plagued with more than a little kitsch rot still to be excised. (I’ll comment more on this and Saturday’s performance of Turandot later next week)

House of the Dead is about the tragedy of prison life. It can be bleak, though there is an undeniable thread of hope in it. It is an ensemble piece without big arias or set pieces. However, it is starkly beautiful with some of Janacek's most stirring music. Although Pierre Boulez conducted Chéreau's production throughout Europe, here at the Met, the job fell to Esa-Pekka Salonen. It nearly brought tears to my eyes hearing such a wonderful rich sound coming from this world-class orchestra under his guidance especially when you consider how much we have lost in Los Angeles with his resignation as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. People should be lining up around the block to hear this opera played regardless of anything going on onstage.

But that would certainly be missing half of an excellent evening. The major vocalists are impressive, including Kurt Streit and Willard White. Petter Matei delivers a rich and warm-toned extended passage in Act III that will sell you on his star quality if that hasn't happened already. I’m also especially fond of Stefan Margita who appeared as Luka. I’ve previously seen him steal whole operas as both Loge and Laca so his intense presence here was no surprise. He’s a superb actor who will hopefully be back on this and other American stages soon. The staging requires an immense amount of physical movement among the prisoners that never crosses over into dance, but is otherwise just about there. It was no surprise that some of the heartiest applause was reserved for the chorus and actors appearing as the prison inmates and guards considering the amount of action, some of it in various states of undress, that the staging calls for. Chéreau's staging makes no bones about the homerotic qualities os Janacek's opera, though it is admittedly not a primary focus.

The other highlight of the evening for me was seeing a kindred spirit on my exit from the theater. Composer Kaija Saariaho, who is no stranger to bleak operas about hope was in attendance on Saturday. She’s a good friend of Salonen’s and with the exciting leadership that Peter Gelb has brought to the Met, I couldn’t help but fantasize that she’d arrived in town to meet with him and Salonen to discuss a production of L’Amour de Loin or perhaps something new for the company. Probably not, but a boy can dream, can’t he? From the House of the Dead is superb and it runs now through the 5th of December.



Really appreciated your review. Again, no over blown rhetoric and meant for the opera masses. I haven't read all the reviews, but I especially appreciated your points about the homo-erotic qualities, and about this not really being a new production.
Ooo, Saariaho sighting! Since neither of her operas has been seen in NYC yet, who knows?
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