Do some artists—authors, painters, composers—have an uncanny capacity to jell a political moment and anticipate the next in their own media? It’s an old, admittedly romantic question, and it crossed my mind as I watched Patrice Chéreau’s treatment of Leoš Janáček’s opera From the House of the Dead at New York’s Metropolitan Opera last winter. This production of a finely honed, brutal work by one of the twentieth century’s great composers received almost unanimous praise. It was well deserved, even if its political ramifications were explored somewhat inattentively.
The staging premiered in Vienna in 2007, with performances also in Amsterdam and Aix-en-Provence. (The latter is on DVD.) Its success was due to an uncommon, cooperative imagination: Chéreau’s direction, conducting by Pierre Boulez, and Richard Peduzzi’s brilliantly stern sets. In Boulez’s stead, Esa-Pekka Salonen led a searing rendition of the score in New York.
Chéreau may have the finest directorial imagination in Europe. He has worked in several media and, apart from people who pay attention to opera, is perhaps best known for his award winning 1994 film La Reine Margot (starring Isabelle Adjani and set during the religious and political strife of sixteenth-century France). Great controversy accompanied Chéreau’s 1976 staging—this too was a collaboration with Boulez and Peduzzi—of Richard Wagner’s Ring as an anarchist parable for its bicentenary production in Bayreuth, Germany. His non-operatic stage work is riveting. Chéreau’s Phèdre, which I saw in Paris in 2003, was a taut homage to Racine’s poetic powers. When he shapes an opera, Chéreau engages it with inventive acumen rather than making himself its private proprietor.
Consider a comment he made just before the New York premiere. Janáček’s opera was fashioned between 1926 and 1928 from passages in Dostoevsky’s semi-autobiographical novel about his four years as a political prisoner at “katorga“ (hard labor) in Omsk, Siberia. “We don’t need to put the prisoners into orange uniforms to talk about Guantánamo…,” said Chéreau. “Our job is to make it possible to think about all the prisons in the world at any time.” This is, I suspect, a jab at director Peter Sellars, who can easily be imagined placing Dostoevsky’s convicts in Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib—in case nobody knows of American misbehavior in them. Chéreau and his collaborators have more sophisticated ways. The costumes and Peduzzi’s sets for House were grimly wise. Inmates wore dull garb of our own day, clothed as Everyman in detention. Imposing, sliding gray walls made up the penal complex, and shades of illumination combined with them and the costumes to make time and place unsure. This indeterminacy served to universalize agonies conceived originally in firm time and place, mid-nineteenth century Russia.
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