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:

Now read how Shostakovich's persecutor finally spoke out.
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Garth Trinkl said…
And here was little me waiting for Boulez's first opera! [once rumored to be based upon Jean Genet's The Maids.]

Messiaen... even Cage and Carter finally got around to writing their first operas, but not Boulez (unless I missed something).
Antoine Leboyer said…
For Janacek - Boulez fans, there exists on a Chicago Symphony Orchestra "Tribute" series a recording of Janacek Glagolitic Mass which Boulez conducted in 95 in Chicago. (,1,3,7,2&productid=15422). Highly recommended. To my knowledge, this is Boulez's only recording of Janacek. It is supposed to be close to the original score with the Intrada done at beginning and end of the work. It is a sharp reading which shows how colorful, powerful and crude Janacek's orchestration is. The rest of the set is of great quality, save perhaps for a suprisingly low on humor Till Eulenspiegel. The Janack is worth the set by itself.
Drew80 said…
Are there any plans for Deutsche Grammophon to record Boulez conducting this work? The old Mackerras recording is magnificent, but a new recording would be welcome, I believe.

I have always believed "From The House Of The Dead" to be Janacek's greatest work. It is a scandal that it has never received a staged performance in the United States. When the Amsterdam production travels to New York in a year or two, to be presented under Salonen at the Met, the work will, at long last, receive a staging here.
Drew80 said…
I made an error which I would like to correct.

"From The House Of The Dead" received its American stage premiere in 1990, when it was mounted by New York City Opera.

Garth Trinkl said…
Drew, Charles Mackerras also led concert performances of the work with the New York Philharmonic and Chorus, and soloists, in the winter/spring of 1983. I attended New York performances in both 1983 and 1990. I recall that the New York Philharmonic prepared a beautiful free, souvenir booklet of the libretto in 1983.

It is beyond my belief that the work has never been produced in Washington, D.C. or in San Francisco (or elsewhere in the U.S.). There were several European productions of the opera in the 1980s and 1990s. I don't know whether the work has been produced in Canada.
Drew80 said…
You may be thinking of Rafael Kubelik, who in the early 1980's conducted the New York Philharmonic in a concert performance of "From The House Of The Dead".
Drew80 said…
Yes, it was Kubelik who conducted the March 1983 New York Philharmonic concert performances of "From The House Of The Dead".

Those performances were billed as the American premiere of the full score, according to a contemporaneous article in the New York Times.
Garth Trinkl said…
Thank you for the research and correction. Yes, Rafael Kubelik it must have been.

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