Boulez's last opera
Tim Ashley reviews Janacek's From the House of the Dead at Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam in today's Guardian - This new production of From the House of the Dead is a momentous achievement, although it also arouses conflicting feelings. It marks the resumption, after 28 years, of the collaboration between Pierre Boulez and Patrice Chéreau, whose work together in the 1970s changed the way we thought about music theatre.
This is the first Janacek opera Boulez has conducted - and also the last, since he has declared his intention of conducting no further operas in the theatre. The pair's choice of work is telling. Janacek's Dostoevsky-inspired examination of life in a Siberian labour camp is radical, politically and musically. It rages against human brutality, yet demands we acknowledge the presence of what Janacek calls "the spark of God" in every being. It also undermines every assumption about operatic structure. There is little plot, and no dominant protagonists. Janacek reveals the divine fire in man through the tales, real or imagined, that the prisoners tell one another in order to give their lives meaning in a world where hope has vanished.
Chéreau transposes the opera to a 20th-century gulag that is also a vision of hell. The vast concrete funnel of Richard Peduzzi's set resembles the pit of Dante's Inferno, where we first encounter the convicts circling and shuffling like the damned. Only gradually do the cast - faultless down to the last extra - reveal the existential integrity of each man, and by the end we are completely immersed in their lives, their dreams and their overwhelming despair.
With the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in the pit, Boulez unleashes rending dissonances that fill the air with pain and compassion. Harrowing, unforgettable and one of the great Janacek interpretations of our time.
· At the Aix-en-Provence festival, July 16-22. Details: http://www.festival-aix.com/.
Now read how Shostakovich's persecutor finally spoke out.
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