I reserve entries to this blog having to do with my opinions on other peoples singing performances to a minimum, and I include them only when I really feel that they were examples of superb artistry and a deep love for opera and or classical singing. That being said, I feel that I would be doing you, the readers and audience members, a huge disservice if I were to neglect to tell you about my experience at The Metropolitan Opera earlier this evening.
The performance of Janacek's 'House of the Dead' was critically acclaimed in the papers in the past week, and since I am a fan of every Janacek work that I have thus far heard, I decided that I needed to go. I was not disappointed; my experience at the opera this evening was not merely a display of beautiful vocalism. Janacek's adaptation of Dostoevsky's novel (of the same name--which was loosely based on his own experiences as a political prisoner) could be described with all the words you'd associate with a blockbuster hit at movie box offices. Spellbinding, thrilling, exhilarating, nothing-like-you've-ever-seen, gripping, heart-stopping, chilling. These words only begin to skim the surface of all that lurks beneath the waters of Janacek's icy depths.
The orchestral accompaniment began with a quasi-overture, as it wasn't really long enough to merit the title, but served as a purely instrumental introduction to the themes of the plot, and the common threads which Janacek would later revisit in the soliloquies of the three main soloists. It was interesting in a tonal sound scape perspective because since the cast was 95% male, the sonorities produced by the orchestra were not able to be wielded as typically done. There were actually many times where the voices were singing in the higher part of their tessitura to create a haunting and empty sort of color to their sound and with the ostinato chugging along beneath to keep the audible "visual", if you will, of the constancy and stagnation of prison life, it was masterfully handled. His harmonies were also delicious, in that, they were quasi grating. But only in a way that became apparent after a few repeats of the figure. However, he then simply dissolves those grating harmonies into something quite beautiful, in an almost fragile-sounding way. Perhaps he was evoking the transiency of the beauty of life, or the double-edged quality to every circumstance.
The most striking and poignant part of this work though, was definitely the psychological aspect that was explored through the libretto (which was transliterated from Janacek himself from Dostoevsky's original Russian--and was not a literal translation) and was communicated in a series of vignettes which Janacek strung together to create a cohesive whole with a common theme. It's hard for me as an audience member to know where to begin to explain this, as it was all so wonderful, and there were so many layers of meaning to appreciate and consider. Basically the story hinges on prisioners in a jail in Siberia, and focuses on three prisoners' stories, and as the stories are told, in a sometimes roundabout and minimalistic way, the audience member gets a sense of the general experience of the prisoners and of their humanity (even in spite of their horrible crimes). This piece becomes more about the human needs of the prisoners rather than what they did to deserve punishment of this degree.
I could certainly go on and on (and on and on!) about the wonders of the psychological complexities of this work, but it would only really make sense to do that if you were familiar with the storyline. However, I don't feel adequately equipped to tell the story to you, as it wouldn't really work for me to relate a quickly boiled down version and then for me to tell you the psychological implications, because the very way in which the story is presented has everything to do with how its perceived, and nothing with what actually happens IN the story. It's a very ingenious and complex architecture that Janacek constructs here. He was certainly a master, as are most poets, of saying what he meant but using words that mean nothing even close to his actual underlying message.
So, as I am in danger of starving your brains with commentary about something which cannot be fully explained in a written medium (of a critical nature, at least), I would like to urge you to please PLEASE see this work for yourself. And if you are not in New York City, please at least read up about it online or get a recording. It's absolutely something to which everyone can relate, and something of which everyone should experience a part.
And for goodness sake--if you're not familiar with Janacek and you love haunting and thought-provoking storytelling- you owe it to yourself to check out his work!!