The Flying Inkpot
Classical Music Reviews

“In every human being, there is a spark of divinity.”

From the House of the Dead
LEOS JANACEK (1854-1928)

Z Mrtvého Domu
Libretto by the composer based on Memoirs of the House of the Dead by
Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky (18 – )

An inktroduction by Chia Han-Leon

Tormented by the work, Believed that it would be his last work – “When it collapses on me, I will be buried” (5 May 1928). Is indeed his final opera, composed in the last two years of his life. Janacek died in August 1928.

Lack of sensuality (qualities often ascribed to his popular operas Ktya Kabanov and The Cunning Little Vixen, inspired by his intense love relationship with Kamila Stsslov.

From the House of the Dead is effectively an opera with no female roles; except for a small part for a prostitute in Act 2, the drama is acted out by a cast of men in a prison, comprising prisoners and their wardens.

In addition, there is no protagonist in the drama. The opera boasts some of Janacek’s most extensive choral scenes, while solo roles are more like excursions of otherwise layman individuals from the choral crowd. The anonymity of some roles are reflected in their names: Tall Prisoner, Short Prisoner, Old Prisoner, Commandant, Voice.

Janacek is well-known for his keen sense of choosing libretti to set as opera, and in many cases wrote his own. As succintly described in the notes by John Tyrell, what Janacek did “was to mark in the margin of his copy [of the basis of the libretto, eg. a novel] those passages which interested him. And from this hemade up his own libretto in a rudimentary but perfectly effective way by extracting dialogue, supplemented where necessary by phrases and sentences taken from the indirect speech of the novel, or which he reluctantly invented himself.” Janacek, a master “operatist” at the end of his life, simply made a brief list of important events in Dostoyevsky’s novel, with page references, and thereby constructed the flow for From the House of the Dead.

The libretto is based on the novel Memoirs from the House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (of Crime and Punishment fame). Although the libretto is in Czech, evidence shows that Janacek actually worked from the Russian original. In fact, Janacek was perfectly comfortable in the language, as… . Although he owned a Czech translation of the novel, the libretto is actually his own (Czech) translation from the Russian.

From the House of the DeadVienna State Opera Choir
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras

onie, Oct 1979

2 discs [43:39 + 38:23] full-price

Called a report of the daily life and physical conditions of a mid-19th century Siberian prison. Text is arranged systematically rather than in chronological narrative. Dostoyevsky divides the chapters in terms of characters and their crimes, …

Act One. It is winter morning in a Siberian prison camp. The prisoners enter the yard from the barracks to wash and eat. Various events occur, presented in sequence in the singing. An argument occurs between two prisoners. Petrovish, a new prisoner is ordered to be flogged, while one one side, several prisoners are teasing an eagle with a broken wing. Nevertheless, they admire its defiant spirit. The Commandant puts the fun to an end and orders the prisoners to work. Two prisoners, Skuratov and Luka, recount their crimes before Petrovish is brought back after his punishment, half-dead.

“warm lyricism” of scenes between Alyeya and Petrovich, a kind of transferred emotions for himself and Kamila.

“And that black opera of mine is giving me plenty of work. It seems to me as if in it I am gradually descending lower and lower, right to the depths of the most wretched people of humanity. And it is hard going.” (undated, postmarked 29 Nov 1927)

In every living thing, there is a spark of divinity.

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