It’s not often that I’m completely baffled by an opera production but Frank Castorf’s 2018 production of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead (Z Mrtvého Domu) at the Bayerische Staatsoper comes pretty close. Since I really can’t explain what’s going on I’ll try to describe the various elements.
First of all the set. It’s a two level set with a large video screen and it revolves. The bottom level seems to represent various parts of the prison camp and the upper room is used for things like the prison hospital. The use of video is complex and impossible to unpack based on seeing a recording. I think there is video going just about all the time but, of course, it’s not always visible on the recording. It’s used in several different ways. There are camera-persons on stage filming the action and sometimes the screen shows action that’s visible on stage and sometimes what is clearly live action behind the set. At other times the video is prerecorded and it includes a section with very heavy overlay of German text which isn’t translated in the subtitles. My German isn’t good enough to fully get it but I think it’s about Freedom and the nature of the Russian people.
Next lets look at at how the character of Aljeja is handled. Canonically, he is a Tatar youth befriended by the aristocratic Gorjančikov. It’s a mezzo role but definitely a trouser role. Here Aljeja appears to be female and she’s conflated with the eagle around which a lot of plot and philosophy turns. We first see her costumed as a sort of bird of paradise and she briefly appears that way again when the eagle is released at the end. It may be significant that in this very male opera (canonically all male but for the brief appearance of a prostitute) we see quite a few females. For example, there’s a female guard and two scantily dressed women appear in the opera/pantomime scene.
There’s also a really weird interpolation. At the end of Act 2 one of the prisoners tells the story of the Miracle of the Gadarene Swine in Spanish (the opera is sung in Czech for a German audience). I have no idea why. Other elements include some really weird “dance of death” elements in both sets and costumes, lashings of blood (and plenty of lashings) and a movie poster. There’s lots of drinking too but that’s no surprise. From the House of the Dead is a weird, non-linear, opera at the best of times but this takes it to a new level and while I found it often to be visually stimulating it was in many ways a bit of a nightmare. And maybe that’s the point.
Musically it’s really well done. The orchestra stars as it tends to in this piece. Simone Young draws some lovely (and not so lovely) sounds from the house orchestra and at times one is just tempted to wallow in the soundscape and not worry too much about the staging! There are some excellent performances. It’s a huge cast and they all get the job done but I was particularly impressed with the really dignified performance of Peter Rose as Gorjančikov. Bo Skovhus is also very fine as Siškov and he really carries the first half of the final act. His makeup is really disturbing too. I also thought that Evgeniya Sotnikova did a fine job of navigating the ambiguities of the Aljeja/eagle complex. All in all, excellent playing, acting and singing.
Andy Sommer directed for video. For reasons that should be clear he was faced with an all but impossible job. I think he probably does as good a job as possible but video viewers are missing a lot here. The picture on DVD is perfectly fine as are the PCM 2.0 and Dolby surround sound tracks though Blu-ray is available. There are no extras on the disk and while the booklet has a good synopsis and track listing there’s nothing at all to help explain what’s going on. Some sort of “director’s note” definitely needed here. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Korean and Japanese.
This recording is the only From the House of the Dead available on Blu-ray and only one of two available on DVD. I think that unless one is very familiar with this opera (and who is?) the older recording from Aix-en-Provence featuring the Chereau/Boulez team is probably a better introduction.