Lyricism in a detention centre? You’ll never find it on Prison Break, but Czech composer Leos Janacek uses music to give a poetic touch to the brutalized characters in From The House Of The Dead, his last opera.
Championed by the late Richard Bradshaw and directed by Dmitri Bertman for the Canadian Opera Company, the rarely staged piece runs 90 minutes and offers violence, passion and even a bit of hope. The non-linear narrative is largely a set of stories drawn from Dostoevsky’s autobiographical novel based on his time in prison.
“The title is a downer, but the opera isn’t,” says set and costume creator Astrid Janson, one of Canada’s best theatre designers. “There are sad, brutal and strong moments, but also an element of expressive, poetic emotion.”
Originally set in a 19th-century Russian prison camp, the work moves the dramatic spotlight from one character to another, bookending the others’ stories with that of the newest inmate, the political prisoner Petrovitch.
“For me, the starting point was reading Dostoevsky’s novel,” offers the designer. She’s also working on the outrageous costumes for VideoCab’s Laurier, which are light-years away from the stark COC design.
“Then I turned to Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and realized that nothing much has changed about prison life. I watched a season of Oz, read newsletters from prisoners, looked at stories about Guantánamo Bay and was struck by the common elements of how people survive in such crowded, corrupt, violent surroundings.”
Janson went for an understandably muted palette, establishing the feel of a 20th-century prison but not being specific about time or place.
“The design has a vaguely Russian quality, with a sense of overcrowding and a lot of surveillance equipment. The prisoners’ clothing has a circle painted on the back; if they escape, they can be easily identified. In Dostoevsky’s time, prisoners also had half their head shaved for the same reason,” she smiles, “but we couldn’t ask the performers to walk around outside the theatre with that look.”
Surprisingly, a pair of commedia-style plays are performed within the opera.
“We’ve set those scenes in a steambath,” says Janson, “and created a different kind of intensity, because these men have waited months to clean themselves.
“There’s a clear hierarchy established – who gets to use whose dirty water, who can bribe guards for soap. It’s like a night off for the prisoners, when they’re allowed to do bawdy theatricals and experience a sense of release.
“And of course they have to do their show only with what’s at hand: towels, branches and buckets."
FROM THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD By Leos Janacek, directed by Dmitri Bertman (Canadian Opera Company). At Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). February 2-22. $20-$275. 416-363-8231.