FROM THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD By Leos Janacek (Canadian Opera Company). At the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). To February 22. $20-$275. 416-368-8231. Rating: NNN
Forget Tosca – it’s done all the time. The show that most opera lovers were looking forward to this season was Leos Janacek’s From The House Of The Dead. Rarely performed, the final work by the composer of Jenufa and Kat’a Kabanova makes its Canadian Opera Company premiere this month, and it’s worth seeing even if its innate dramatic problems haven’t been sufficiently solved.
In his own libretto, Janacek turns Dostoevsky’s semi-autobiographical novella about life in a Siberian prison camp into a grim, dark work that’s a true ensemble piece. There’s no central character or overall arc. Mostly, it’s a series of monologues sung by the prisoners, like a Slavic, all-male version of Chicago’s Cell-Block Tango (without any hummable tunes, mind you).
Designer Astrid Janson’s three-tiered set effectively marks out this nightmarish world’s hierarchy. Below, the prisoners are kept in cramped cages, from which their fingers occasionally reach out. The middle area represents a public space. And above, perched on scaffolds, are the sinister overseers who monitor the prisoners’ movements on video screens with fascist efficiency.
Chalk it up to his background, perhaps, but Russian director Dmitri Bertman demonstrates more of an affinity with this music and source material than he did with last season’s La Traviata travesty. The initial sight of prisoners moving rat-like around the set is startlingly effective.
And I guarantee you’ll be discussing the production’s middle section, featuring an extended bathhouse sequence complete with full-frontal nudity. (Be sure to take your opera glasses, folks.) A touch distracting and gratuitous (what is this, bear night at Spa Excess?), it’s a bold visual move that lightens up the work’s gloom.
But Bertman can’t quite solve the problem of how to give momentum to the monologues, even though they’re effectively sung by a strong group of singers, headed by Pavlo Hunka’s tormented murderer Siskov.
Thankfully, young conductor Alexander Briger, a Janacek specialist and the nephew of the great Charles Mackerras (who worked on the critical edition of the opera), gets thrilling, at times jarring sounds from the COC orchestra.