From the House of the Dead -- Metropolitan Opera, 11/12/09
Margita, Streit, Hoare, Mattei, White / Salonen
Much-lauded director Patrice Chéreau has never before done a show at the Met, and on the evidence of this Janacek premiere one suspects he's never seen a show there either. Perhaps at the previous stops of this touring production his step of putting supertitles onstage (projected on the dull grey walls) in the general vicinity of the characters seemed brilliant, but it's no accident that this house uses individual subtitle screens instead. Not the least reason is that there's no spot (except perhaps dead center where singers are) from which every member of the audience can clearly make out titles -- and having the words moved from left to right and back again only makes things worse, messing up one section of the audience after another with titling hidden behind a wall or some other feature. This was a terrible idea, and I'm surprised Peter Gelb or some other Met veteran didn't have it cut.
Besides this distracting, unnecessary, and possibly illegible underlining, the production was mostly what one might have expected. Drab grey sets, check. Modern clothes of indeterminate time and place, check. Full frontal male nudity, check. Physical direction emphasizing earthy brutality and roughness, check. Not that these are bad choices, mind you, but they're the predictable ones. The show did end on a sour note when Chéreau didn't bother having the eagle fly off: the thing being a wooden model anyway, most of the prisoners pretended to see it go off to the left while one guy just folded it up and put it behind his back. Cheap.
Oh, but the music, and the opera! That was something to hear and take in. Where other operas lengthen time, Janacek's shortens it: the endless grimness of a prison camp becomes an evanescent near-vignette, conveying the essence of the life without any of the tedium. One mini-story shifts to another as if in a dream, which Chéreau's production highlights by running the action mostly together with little sense of time transition. And the musical language should be familiar to any who know the composer's earlier works.
All the performers serve Janacek well, including debuting singers Stefan Margita and Peter Hoare and of course debuting conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who well continues the recent house tradition of excellent Janacek conducting. But the show is stolen by baritone Peter Mattei, whose character Shishkov gets the fullest and last story: a tale of love, not-quite-love, and bloody jealousy that -- in Mattei's hands at least -- is not far from the essence of opera.