Last night I attended the premier performance of "From the House of the Dead", an opera by Leos Janacek. It was . . . hmmmm. I'm still struggling with how to describe it but one word keeps popping into my head. The word that was stuck there throughout the performance.
It was weird.
I knew next to nothing about this opera when I arrived at the Met last night and I admitted as much when I was talking with a couple of women at the cocktail reception prior to the performance. Luckily I was given a very helpful piece of advice - don't try and follow the story, there really isn't one, think of the acts as three vignets. Gratefully, my inside informant also advised that this opera was only 90 minutes long with no intermission. Good thing, I never would have made it to the end had it been longer.
As I was waiting for the chandeliers to rise and the lights to dim, I skimmed the summary of the three acts in my program and focused my opera glasses on the tuxedo clad set in the box seats. (My oepra glasses, by the way, are a pretty blue enamel and silver and yes, they have that one side handle thing which looks very elegant but no matter how much I adjust them I always see double so I have to close one eye. Is that my eyes or are they just not capable of functioning properly?) Part way through my skimming I realized nothing was registering and I had to back track and try again to catch names of characters to watch for.
Reading through the New York Times' review today I wonder if it would have helped to know a bit more background before taking my seat. For example, while I learned in my quick read of the program that the setting was a prison, the fact that it was in Siberia didn't hit me until somewhere in the middle. And I did not know the opera was based on a fictionalized account of Dostoyevsky's years in a Siberian prison. Perhaps that would have made it more interesting to me. Or not. Hard to tell.
Either way, I was startled when the orchestra started playing. When did the conductor walk in, I wondered? Why was there no applause? Did I miss the applause somehow? No, no one clapped. How strange. According to the Times' review, the conductor purposely snuck into the pit to begin the "eerie opening march." I agree, the opening was eerie and stark and a bit unsettling so maybe I was feeling exactly what I was intended to feel and I just wasn't comfortable with it.
Throughout the brief first act I was just taking it all in. The imposing gray, concrete walls that formed the set, the hodge-podge group of men who slowly shuffled onto the stage out of the black with the lighting of a cigarrette to illuminate their entrance and the distraction of wondering about the old man who appeared to be holding an overcoat. Speaking of distractions. The opera is sung in Czech and so I had my Met titles turned on so I could read the translation on the tiny little screen in front of me. But when someone finally started singing, the titles were projected onto the concrete walls in varying places depending on who was singing. In some ways this was easier to read than having to look away from the stage but mostly, I found the words pulled my eyes away from the stage too much without really adding much to my understanding of what was happening. Besides, when words are placed in front of me I have a difficult time not reading them. And re-reading them. And very often, the words were up for significantly longer than necessary or were repeated and I was annoyed at how often I read them. It also made me wonder about the translation when someone would be singing on and on and on and there would be a four-word phrase projected onto the stage.
I will grant that, upon reflection, the music was intriguing. It wasn't anything I would run out and purchase but I wonder if it is something that might improve with repeated exposure. I spent a great deal of time throughout the performance watching the percussionist who used steel chains and a hammer against a piece of metal as his instruments. But nothing really stood out. It was dark, cacophonous and eerie. Which means I'm surprised I didn't like it more since I have a taste of 20th Century Eastern European dissonance. I'm not saying I disliked it, the music simply did not speak to me. And while the singing was all quite beautiful and there was a particularly haunting choir off-stage in the final Act that punctuated the narrative of a rather lengthy story telling, I was mostly unmoved. I guess I only got one level of the music, since the Times indicated "On one level, the repetition conveys the drudgery and routine of prison life." Yup, got that. I just missed the deeper level where "the repetitive riffs evoke the thoughts that get stuck in the minds of the prisoners: resentments, violent fantasies, feelings of betrayal, isolation and yearning."
One more thing confused me. In the second act there are women. At first I thought they were there as visitors but this didn't really make sense in the rest of the staging. Were they also prisoners? That didn't make sense either. I found it distracting because I didn't understand what they were doing or why they were there. At one point near the beginning of the second act I wondered if we were outside the prison. I'm still confused.
So what was my favorite part of the performance? The two transitions between the three acts. There were no intermissions and oddly, no one applauded between acts or following any lengthy solos - I can't say I could pinpoint an aria though. The first act ended with a whole bunch of garbage dropping onto the stage from the rafters. It was startling and visually beautiful to watch it all explode onto the stage without warning smacking the stage floor loudly with bits and pieces trailing lazily in the air and dust rising up and I worried about what may have gone flying into the orchestra pit. Before I could wonder too long as to how they would clean it all off without an intermission, the stage was full of people cleaning up and Act II was under way. The transition to Act III was not quite so dramatic but an unweighted silky black curtain tumbled elegantly down to briefly cover the stage to indicate the transition. Not as shocking as garbage but beautiful and effective.
A couple of other things to mention. First, this is my second opera this season and the second opera with nudity. Yup. Not sure if I mentioned it in my review of Tosca but in the second act one of the three whores who were lazing on the couch in filmy, diaphonous dresses was not fully dressed. Shortly after I wondered if those were boobs I saw on stage (no opera glasses that night) she pushed first one breast and then the next into the dress and then laced up the bodice. There were no boobs at this opera but there was full on male nudity - but not of the lascivious variety. The Times' reviewer described it by explaining the "prisoners arrive fresh from baths, looking scrubbed and bedraggled, some in underwear, some naked and embarrassed. That even in this prison they cling to a shred of privacy was a poignant touch in the staging." I agree. I was startled and uncomfortable to suddenly see a stage full of naked men but it wasn't a shock value thing, more of a humiliating part of being a prisoner which gave more real life flavor to the performance.
Overall, I would not go so far as to say I have any particularly strong feelings one way or the other about the performance. Actually, that isn't true. I found the performance incredible. I also liked the set and staging (other than the projected super-titles) and the quirky little sub-play performed by the prisoners in Act II that was pretty funny at times. I just was not riveted by the music and was not moved by the singing.
In the end, after the curtain fell and applause slowly broke out, I thought others shared my meh attitude. But as the many, many performers took the stage for their bows, the applause grew louder and louder as more prominent characters came to the forefront. I was seated in an end seat in the second tier of balconies and decided to beat the rush and slipped out just as people started "Bravo!"-ing the leads. Yes, they were amazing, I just didn't share the enthusiasm for this piece of work. And I took it neither did the man who was right behind me descending the velvety spiral staircase that spilled us out into the main lobby while applause still thundered inside.
The New York Times may believe "Tosca" was "a dismal failure" and "From the House of the Dead" a "needed comeback success" but I will have to disagree and place Tosca in the lead of successes so far this season.