When Patrice Ch_reau's production of From the House of the Dead premiered in Vienna in 2007, it created a sensation. Praised by critics and audiences alike, it was acclaimed as the best European opera production of the year.
Ch_reau, best known for his centenary staging of Wagner's Ring in Bayreuth, makes his U.S. opera debut with this production. He is joined by Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor laureate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who also makes his Met debut. The two artists discuss their approach to one of opera's most riveting dramas.
This new production marks the Met premiere of From the House of the Dead, and many audiences may not be familiar with it. What is the opera about?
Patrice Ch_reau: It's a work of energy, full of life, full of vitality, and that is what Janšcek's music is about. It's a very unconventional opera, based on a book by Dostoevsky. He spent four years in a prison camp in Siberia and later wrote about it. Janšcek was fascinated by it. People can be scared by the idea of an opera about prison. But life in this prison is incredibly alive, incredibly strong: it's exactly our life, reconstructed in a prison.
Esa-Pekka Salonen: It's absolutely fascinating and very powerful. This opera is uncompromising in its form and its language. I'm very touched by its almost existentialist message: about freedom of thought and the value and worthiness of every individual, regardless of their circumstances and regardless of the choices they have made in their lives. It's the indisputable human value in all of us. The opera very powerfully conveys that.
Tell us about Janšcek's music.
ES: It does something to me that no other music does. It has a very primitive, unpolished quality to it. From the House of the Dead is stark, quite often naked. Janšcek uses hypnotic devices like extreme registers in the orchestra, which is incredibly effective. Even when things are at their most beautiful, there is always a dramatic drive underneath. Janšcek was a very intuitive composer who let himself be led by the drama. The form of this music is kind of organic. The drama dictates all the positions he takes, and that's what makes it so powerful on stage.
Dostoevsky's novel was published in 1862, the opera premiered in 1930. When and where is your production set?
PC: Janšcek wrote the opera in 1928, before World War II. In the meantime, we've had the experiences of the Nazis, the Holocaust, the communist Gulag. So of course we cannot avoid thinking about all that. The opera includes all the camps and ghettos and holocausts of our century. But we don't need to put the prisoners into orange uniforms to talk about Guantanamo. It's the 20th century, that's the only thing I can say. We don't know exactly where we are, but we don't need to know. The costumes are timeless. It could be the 1950s, it could be in America in the suburbs, or it could be Russia during the communist period. Our job is to make it possible to think about all the prisons in the world at any time.
You're working with Peter Mattei, Willard White, Kurt Streit, and others, but there is no lead role in From the House of the Dead.
ES: Not in the traditional sense. We witness a series of human stories that come up, are told: then the teller returns to the anonymity of being a prisoner again. It's almost like there is a strong beam of light that all of a sudden hits someone's face, this person becomes the focus of the story for a while, and then the light moves on.
The production premiered in Vienna and has also been seen in other European cities. Have you made any changes for New York?
PC: It will be different, first of all because we have American actors. They're totally different: more physical. Among the singers, about half of them have done the production before. So it's very interesting, because some parts of the opera will be the same and some will be quite different. With another spirit, another air, another impression.
Mr. Chéreau, in Europe the production was conducted by one of your longtime collaborators, Pierre Boulez. What's different about recreating it now with Maestro Salonen?
PC: You know, there's only one rule between a conductor and a director: we need to be together. We tell the same story, we breathe the same breath. All you have to do is be aware of what the other one does. If he wants to do something differently, a little slower, I will hear that. If he's right I will accept it. If I think he's wrong, we'll discuss it.
ES: I went to see the production in Aix-en-Provence two summers ago and I have to say it was one of the greatest operatic and theatrical experiences in my life. Patrice manages to put so much detail into it that every chorus member and soloist is completely in the role, in the part, even when they're not the focus. It was incredibly powerful.
What is the message audiences should take away from this piece?
ES: At the end of the opera, the wounded eagle that they have kept in the camp is finally able to fly. It's about a symbol: the spirit is free even if we are not physically free.
PC: People say there is no story in From the House of the Dead, but that's wrong. There are many fascinating stories in this piece. They're all about the solitude of the prisoners, about their love. It's all of mankind in an opera, the whole of mankind is on stage. On the first page of Janšcek's score, he wrote a sentence by Dostoevsky, "In every human being, a divine spark." That's what you have to remember.
For production info and tickets, visit Metropolitan Opera.