In his last great work, Janáček flatly ignored the basic rules of the theatre: From the House of the Dead is an opera without heroes. The piece is a montage of powerful dramatic scenes and narrations, in which each of the various protagonists in turn steps out of the anonymous male chorus to tell his tale. Sometimes that tale takes up a whole scene, sometimes the protagonist sings a single line. Separating the close on twenty (!) soloist roles poses a huge challenge for both the director and the spectator. It helps that in this labour camp, as in all dystopias, everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others. These five prisoners are most in the spotlight and they provide the spectator with a holdfast in the narrative.
Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov
Previously: apart from the fact that this aristocrat has been sentenced, as he tells us, for political reasons and arrived dressed according to the latest Petersburg fashion, we learn very little about Gorjančikov’s background.
In The House of the Dead: “Today they are bringing us a noble Gentleman! An Aristocrat!” The very first sentence of the opera makes it painfully clear that Gorjančikov is an outsider. His material affluence – he can afford to drink tea! – arouses envy, and his idealism and cultural baggage are something of a hindrance in this rough male community. Yet the arrival of this intellectual brings dynamism to the prison, and it is credible that he is the driving force behind the improvised stage production in the second act. The only one who feels almost immediate sympathy for him is Aljeja. The attachment is mutual: Gorjančikov eventually teaches the young Tatar to read and write, he gives him a faith and takes care of him when he is in the sickbay.
Previously: Skuratov leaves Moscow in his youth. After several jobs, he becomes a soldier and finds himself in the garrison of a small town in the west. There he meets the beautiful Luisa and falls head over heels in love. He even dreams of marrying her, but unfortunately she is engaged to an old distant relative who is fabulously wealthy and makes her promise never to see Skuratov again. When Skuratov hears this, he pays the relative a visit, almost mechanically taking a pistol with him. He threatens Luisa’s intended with it, an argument breaks out and a shot is fired. The young soldier flees, but is captured and summoned to appear in court.
In The House of the Dead: Skuratov doesn’t manage to adapt to prison conditions. His mood swings are abrupt and sometimes thoroughly alarming. At one point, he starts dancing with almost hysterical spontaneity and then collapses with exhaustion. Haunted by the memory of his Luisa, his fragile mind disintegrates into incurable madness.
Previously: Luka Kuzmič was born in a small province in the Ukraine where as the impetuous head of a clan, he becomes notorious for his excesses. He decides to join the army in the hope of rising rapidly through the ranks and returning triumphantly to the village. But the young man’s morbid pride and dislike of authority lead to a first prison sentence, for vagrancy. Even in prison, the administrative hierarchy irritates him so much that he incites his Ukrainian fellow prisoners to rebellion. The prison governor intervenes in the conflict and in the exchange of words that follows Luka stabs him in the stomach with a knife and kills him.
In The House of the Dead: in the labour camp Luka is a cobbler, assisted by the young Aljeja. He is seen as a leader of the other prisoners. He feels somewhat superior to his unfortunate fellow inmates, often making them look ridiculous and picking fights.
Previously: we don’t know how and why this young Tatar from Dagestan ended up in this prison camp, only that his mother died of grief after he was sentenced.
In The House of the Dead: his youth and good-naturedness do him no favours in this environment. So the vulnerable Aljeja is also right at the bottom of the hierarchical ladder. In his naivety and eagerness to learn, he, more than anyone, symbolizes the hope of a different life, a new beginning. And the arrival of the intellectual Gorjančikov, who cares for him like a father, gives direction to that hope. Aljeja learns to read and write, demonstrates talent and conviction in the stage production in the second act and even intervenes physically when his friend finds himself in a tight corner. The life-threatening wounds Aljeja sustains in the process form a last rite of passage. The future is his for the taking.
Previously: in his youth, Šiškov was friends with the tempestuous Filka Morozov. The latter courts Akulka, his rich employer’s youngest daughter. After a difference of opinion with the old man about a financial matter, Filka rejects Akulka. He announces out loud that he had intimate relations with the young girl and shames her publicly. Everyone shuns her, but Šiškov decides to marry her, partly as a game. Once the marriage has been celebrated, the taunted Šiškov takes to the bottle. Even the moving discovery that his wife was innocent changes nothing. Quite the reverse, in fact. When on the day he takes up employment, Filka apologizes to Akulka and she admits that she still has feelings for her former admirer, something in him snaps. The young woman is on the receiving end of a succession of acts of domestic violence. One day Šiškov suggests they go out into the fields. Halfway, in the middle of the woods, he cuts her throat.
In The House of the Dead: Šiškov spends most of his time in the prison sickbay where he constantly relives his traumatic experiences. Fate reunited him with Filka, who has taken a new name. What revenge is Šiškov plotting for the man who ruined his life?