Notes on House of the Dead

4 June 2011 § Leave a comment

Last night I went to Opera North’s production of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, which I’d been looking forward to for ages – opera and Dostoevsky – what’s not to like? The opera was wonderful, with some great singing, and even though it was a concert performance, it came across really well. I wasn’t reviewing this one, which was nice because I was able to think about it more from a Dostoevsky point of view, and I’m going to write about how I think the book and the operal interact. If you’re after a conventional review, I recommend Laura Kate Wilson’s review on Bachtrack of the full staged production, and  I certainly agree with what she says about the quality of the singing.

It was clear from the programme synopsis that Janáček’s version is a severely curtailed and edited version of Dostoevsky’s book. As a structure for an opera, it mostly works very well; he takes a few of the key stories that the prisoners tell, as they recount their crimes, mixing them in with the lively and nonsensical peasant folk banter that fills the book. The action happens off-stage, and the musical depiction of the flogging is particularly shocking. I was surprised too though at how lovely some of the music is: the overture immediately evoked for me the harsh beauty of the Siberian landscape with its great rivers, endless forests, and the rolling steppe. In the book the narrator, Goryanchikov, marvels at the beauty around him, and the view from the river, and there’s a similar description at the end of Crime and Punishment: notably these are the only times I can think of where Dostoevsky describes countryside at all, and Janáček’s music immediately brought to mind those passages, and my own memories of Siberia.

The shocking tale of Shishkov, Akulka’s husband becomes a central part of the third act; a long and demanding narrative, sung fabulously by Robert Haywood. However, Janáček goes astray here I think by merging the character of Akulka’s lover, Filka Morozov, with one of the prisoners, Luka Kuzmitch. It seems improbable that the wronged husband could spend years in jail side-by-side with his wife’s lover and his old drinking buddy, with neither of them realising each other’s identity until Filka/Luka dies of TB. That’s the sort of thing that belongs in Mozart.

My impression of the opera is that it’s very definitely Janáček’s story, not Dostoevsky’s. Dostoevsky’s book is just a framework, a starting point, and I think Janáček has a very different message. Janáček wrote about finding the spark of God in the minds of criminals but for Dostoevsky, the whole question of guilt and remorse, and inner goodness was much more ambiguous. In House of the Dead itself, the narrator Goryanchikov concludes that the peasants feel no remorse at all, although later in his story The Peasant Marey Dostoevsky remembers the kindness of a peasant from his childhood and wonders whether the rough prisoners around him could also have been like Marey themselves. Dostoevsky certainly wanted to find the spark of God in the people, but his initial experience in prison was horror at how utterly evil some of the criminals were and the remorse shown by Janáček’s prisoners as they tell their stories is entirely absent  from Dostoevsky’s book.

The whole question of freedom is another interesting and complex part of the book that is probably too subtle to be conveyed by opera. Janáček neatly frames the story with the injured eagle, which is tended by the prisoners and released at the same time as Goryanchikov (who himself seems but a fleeting visitor to the house of the dead, and the complicated political relationships between the gentry and political prisoners with the peasant convicts is another necessary omission from the opera), but a lot of the book focusses on the need of the prisoners to find their own form of freedom whilst they are incarcerated, even when, by exercising that freedom they often act against their own best interests. This desire of human beings to assert their free will whatever the consequences is one of Dostoevsky’s central themes, from the Underground Man’s Crystal Palace right through to the Grand Inquisitor. Janáček’s call to freedom is more uplifting and positive: the desire of the wild bird to fly free, the desire of the prisoner for liberation.

I also found myself wondering, of course, what Dostoevsky would have made of it. There’s so much in his writing about his relationship with visual arts, especially painting, but I’ve not come across anything about music. I will venture to say that I think he would have appreciated Janáček’s opera as a work of art in itself: he maintained that if art is to have a message, it must also give pleasure otherwise the message is lost, and Janáček passes that test with flying colours. I suspect that Dostoevsky might have been a bit grumpy and precious about his own book being turned into an opera, but I loved it.

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