Janáček’s last opera, From the House of the Dead, is a curious piece. It sets certain episodes from Dostoevsky’s account of his life in prison into a collage of stories that doesn’t have a straightforward narrative arc at all. It’s quite brutal, as one might expect, and very male dominated. Few characters stand out as individuals and so the piece becomes very much an exercise in ensemble musical theatre. The music is unusual too. In Pierre Boulez’ words it is “primitive”. Certain phrases are repeated over and over with minimal development to create a sort of “expressionist minimalism”. It’s extremely interesting to listen to and a great sonic match for the brutal and repetitive nature of prison camp life.
It’s a rare and valuable experience when a performance makes one reconsider a perhaps overly familiar work. That’s the effect that Claus Guth’s 2009 staging of Handel’s Messiah had on me. I don’t think that there is any piece I’m more familiar with than Messiah. I feel like I’ve known it all my life. I’ve sung it. I own a vocal score (rare indeed for me!). I couldn’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard it. And yet here it came up entirely fresh and had me thinking about it in completely new ways.