Director Remodels ‘House Of The Dead’ With Heavy Hand

Director Frank Castorf’s debut staging for the Bavarian State Opera weaves excerpts from Dostoevsky into Janáček’s
‘From the House of the Dead’ through live video and inserted dialogue. (Photos © Wilfried Hösl)
By Rebecca Schmid

MUNICH – The life of Dostoevsky is implicitly present in Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, an adaptation of the Russian author’s semi-autobiographical novel about life in a Siberian prison. Director Frank Castorf, in his debut staging for the Bavarian State Opera, goes a step further. As seen at the May 21 premiere, excerpts from Dostoevsky’s novels and anecdotes are woven into the production through live video and inserted dialogue. In a statement about the wider context of Russian history, the production also includes allusions to Leon Trotsky.

Tenor Charles Workman plays the prisoner Skuratov as a prankster.

The results by turns enhance and disrupt the musical narrative. Program notes liken Castorf’s superimposition of plotline to the layers of Janáček’s score, in which the characters use a declamatory style, while the orchestra creates an undercurrent of emotional atmosphere. And yet Janáček also achieves a moving simplicity by distilling Dostoevsky’s novel into carefully chosen scenes which home in on individual characters.

The revolving stage packs in so much action that the opera is often more overwhelmed than illuminated. The prisoners are covered in fake blood, with video closeups that drive home the violence so intensely that the viewer may be inclined to turn away his or her eyes. Already during the overture, the camera zooms in on a dead doll, undermining glimmers of hope in the music. The newly arrived prisoner Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov will soon lick the foot of the only female prisoner, Aljeja, who – outfitted with a feathered crown and wings – becomes one with the eagle that appears in the first and final acts as a symbol of freedom.

Rabbit cages, meanwhile, are placed onstage in reference to Trotsky’s pastime at his home in Mexico City (he also raised chickens before being assassinated). Castorf pulls out all the stops in the second act, in which one prostitute dances with a dead rabbit, while another prostitute has an epileptic fit (an allusion to Dostoevsky’s illness, which grew worse in prison). In the final scene, the first prostitute hands Gorjančikov a shopping bag with an Adidas jacket, perhaps indicating that he will only become a slave to consumer society upon his departure.

Aleš Briscein (left) is a believable Luka; feathered Evgeniya Sotnikova is an elegant Aljeja.

For all his provocative gestures, Castorf coordinates entrances well with the music and gives the singers space to focus on their vocal delivery. As Šiškov – who tells the story of the prisoner Luka, who murdered his sweetheart, thinking her not to be a virgin – baritone Bo Skovhus follows the music’s manic changes in mood, now spitting out his words, now creating desperate, lyrical lines. The prisoner Skuratov (tenor Charles Workman) is cast as a kind of prankster, dancing around with a pitchfork as he cries for his girlfriend, Luiza. In Skuratov’s first-act monologue about how he killed the man whom Luiza was forced to marry, Workman is so engaging that the appearance of a man in a skeleton costume and live video of the drunk prisoner spitting vodka into the camera seem superfluous.

Aristocratic inmate Gorjančikov (Peter Rose) licks the foot of Aljeja (Evgeniya Sotnikova).

As Gorjančikov, bass Peter Rose conjures sympathy for the plight of the aristocratic prisoner with an expansive baritone and innocent expression. Soprano Evgeniya Sotnikova brings a silvery timbre and elegant presence to the role of Aljeja, while tenor Aleš Briscein’s native Czech diction and tough presence make for a believable characterization of Luka. Standouts among the many comprimarios include baritone Christian Rieger as the Prison Governor and tenor Ulrich Reß as the Elderly Prisoner.

The house orchestra under guest conductor Simone Young offers a dramatically vivid performance of a recently published edition of the score that attempts to restore Janáček’s original intentions. Twittering folkloristic motives receive authentic accents, while dark, sweeping lines unfurl with smooth tone. Janáček balances the despair of confinement with a sense of faith in humanity. Castorf’s production, for all its historical depth, leaves little to the imagination.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.

Baritone Bo Skovhus (center) as Šiškov follows the music’s manic changes in mood.