No right-minded person out alone on the street would wish to encounter the characters from From the house of the dead! And yet Janáček has the power to shine a light in the darkest corners of humanity with music that exudes intensity, vulnerability, power and humour. Conductor Michael Boder explains why Janáček’s last opera is so unusual.
From the house of the dead is Janáček’s last opera. What sort of work is it?
Even though it was composed ninety years ago, it is still one of the most modern operas in the repertoire. Janáček evidently had a whole new opera concept in mind. Even today the piece comes across as fragmented; it is almost as if it has been cut into pieces and then put back together. Moreover, there is no unequivocal development, no real plot. Each scene leads to an expression of unexpected and senseless violence, which also ends suddenly, while at the end of the opera you are given a glimpse of a utopia in which everything could be different if only you could fly (which of course nobody can...). All these elements make this work alarmingly relevant to our times!
How does Janáček compare to contemporaries like Bartók and Berg?
There is no doubt that Janáček is the most experimental theatre man if you compare him to other opera composers like Béla Bartók and Alban Berg. Bartók didn’t write many operas of course (laughs) and Berg’s operas changed twentieth-century musical thinking. Berg’s scores show great precision, thoroughness and sound sensitivity. Janáček sets out to do something different. His works reveal a distinct theatrical understanding. Take, for example, his characterization of Jenůfa and Kát’a Kabanová. And in From the house of the dead, with just a few masterly musical strokes of the pen he gives his numerous characters a distinct personality. It was a daring experiment on Janáček’s part to turn this particular novel by Dostoyevsky with its non-dramatic theme into drama.
THERE IS NO DOUBT THAT JANÁČEK IS THE MOST EXPERIMENTAL THEATRE COMPOSER OF THIS GENERATION.
So does the music serve another purpose?
Yes, it does. It gives this fragmented opera a certain unity, despite the fact that the music itself is also fragmented. Musical ideas are introduced and immediately transformed, even to the point of hysteria, and then they end in what might be described as chaos, before a new idea is launched. For the listener it feels like some sort of nightmare whose tempo is difficult to follow at times. The music also has a cinematic quality. It contains elements from many different spheres: references to folk music, but also a Banda (theatre music), sometimes humorous, popular passages, and then suddenly unannounced moments of lyricism and melancholy emerge. The audience has to keep up with the ideas, because this opera is like a film montage of quick successive sequences.
Is this Janáček’s most melodious opera?
People say that, but the question is what is meant by the word ‘melody’? It is the orchestra that gets most of the melodic lines rather than the singing parts. The singers no longer have a melody; it seems melody evaporated in the prison…. Whereas in a ‘normal opera’, the orchestra accompanies the singers, this never actually happens in this score. The orchestra plays, the singer ‘talks’. And often the two levels are almost uncoupled. The division becomes so arbitrary that the music and the figures on stage are practically interchangeable, which gives the piece a post-modern flavour. Of course, this also has to do with the prison setting in which the characters are stripped of their individuality and abandoned to their lonely fate. So as a conductor, you have to introduce the various gradations in the orchestra to make the stage apparent again and to balance the relationship between the two.
So in this opera does Janáček’s vocal writing, based on the so-called ‘speech melodies’, lean more towards someone like Claude Debussy, who advocated the prosody of language?
Strangely enough in that respect Debussy bears more resemblance to Wagner, because he creates a musical space in which something takes place. That applies less to this opera. I would describe this more as a sort of ‘circus situation’ in which we hear a very particular type of music while the listener sees something totally different. Janáček doesn’t create a sound cosmos that makes listeners feel good.
He does look for very unusual sonorities in the orchestra...
Yes, he also experiments with sound, often with expressly requested ‘ugly’ sounds and abruptly interrupted notes. Sometimes it is rather like hitting a sheet of glass with a hammer until it shatters. He prescribes chain-clanking and other abstruse sounds, but he never sets out to give the orchestra palette a naturalistic quality, in other words, he will never echo what we see on the stage, as Wagner does. For example, when Siegfried strikes the anvil with his hammer, we hear a hammer-blow. Here they are like ‘sound associations’, the exteriorization of violence and brutality.
Janáček very rarely looks for a symphonic sound in this score. If that symphonic sound is already there, it is quickly undermined or diminished. He deliberately avoids pure beauty, which is partly why the lyrical passages stand out in this work. In fact, that is the underlying principle: not a single sentence is allowed to end as beautifully as it began. Janáček seduces the listener with brief interludes of beauty: for a moment the audience is sucked into a utopian world, but a few beats later he finds himself back in the dystopia.
This production is the first to use the latest critical edition of the score.
The differences will not be that noticeable to the listener. But I have to say that for me the music is now a little rougher, it feels sturdier than in the traditional score, which was made slightly more ‘graceful’.
AS A CONDUCTOR, YOU HAVE TO BE ABLE TO PRESENT THE REPETITION IN EVER-DIFFERENT WAYS BY ESTABLISHING THE RIGHT NUANCES
What does a conductor have to be particularly aware of when performing this music?
The structure of Janáček’s music – as indeed of all music – is to a certain extent determined by a number of repetitions. In this opera Janáček inflates this to a sort of ‘musical hospitalism’, constantly reviving a musical phrase, rather like bashing your head against a wall over and over again. The musical phrases are almost continually mutated, and you have to perform them differently each time. Apart from that, the music itself, irrespective of the libretto, is incredibly rhetorical. As a conductor, you have to be able to present the repetition in ever-different ways by establishing the right nuances. And of course you must also bring out lots of nuances in the orchestra to ensure the intelligibility of the scene, while being careful to focus the attention on where the action is concentrated. Everything has to be very pliable. That’s the biggest challenge when performing this music.
Recorded by Reinder Pols and Aletheia Vanackere