As outré debuts go, it would hard to top Daniel Špinar’s production of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead. Warming up for his new position as artistic director of the drama department of Prague’s National Theatre next season, the 35-year old director presented his first opera as not one but three pieces, adopting a radically different tone, style and approach for each act. If the result made an already complicated work even more inscrutable, it also showed a formidable talent in the making.

Štefan Margita (Luka Kuzmič) and Michal Bragagnolo (Aljeja) © Patrik Borecký
Štefan Margita (Luka Kuzmič) and Michal Bragagnolo (Aljeja)
© Patrik Borecký

Janáček’s final opera (he died two years before the 1930 première) is a collage in every sense of the word. The composer stitched together the libretto using select scenes and characters from Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, a fictionalized account of the author’s experiences in a Siberian prison camp. There is no plotline as such in the opera. Instead it’s a series of vignettes, with an ensemble cast taking turns telling their backstories, a structure well-suited to the composer’s fractured, iconoclastic musical language.

Even presented as a unified work, The House of the Dead poses daunting staging problems. It is set entirely in a prison camp with an all-male cast, hardly a recipe for an entertaining evening. There are long stretches of pure music, forcing the director to create extended fills in the stage action. And while the combination of Janáček’s gripping score and sharp, pitched-speech vocals do justice to the source material, the grim atmosphere begs for relief.

Špinar took considerable liberties in lightening the load. First, he put a musical frame around the piece, sometimes breaking the fourth wall in the process. During the overture to the first act, the cast arrives one by one at the prison, wearing tuxedos and waving their arms as if they’re conducting the orchestra while being photographed and booked. In their communal cell, instead of the wounded eagle in the libretto, there is a damaged piano angling awkwardly from the floor. And the prisoners dance every time a melody breaks out in the orchestra, with nearly the entire second act staged as a burlesque.

František Zahradníček (Gorjančikov), Michal Bragagnolo (Aljeja) and Štefan Margita (Luka Kuzmič) © Patrik Borecký
František Zahradníček (Gorjančikov), Michal Bragagnolo (Aljeja) and Štefan Margita (Luka Kuzmič)
© Patrik Borecký

Comedy has been added in the form of seven prisoners who do slapstick and ribald choreography. Inventive use is made of props like brooms, mops and plastic garbage bags. Most audaciously, Špinar creates a new character in the third act, a silent female dancer who transforms a lengthy soliloquy on a doomed love affair into a modern dance performance. All of which is light years away from Janáček and Dostoyevsky. But like a train wreck, you can’t take your eyes off it.

The first act opens in a large room of what seems to be a rotting mansion, with the cast now in prison uniforms and kept busy by two sadistic uniformed guards. Their bickering is interrupted by the arrival of a new inmate, Gorjančikov, a political prisoner. When his defiant attitude earns him 100 lashes (complete with screams), a brutal drama seems about to unfold. But suddenly the prisoners break into a dance routine that could have been lifted from West Side Story, sans the brooms. Veteran tenor Štefan Margita, reprising the role of Luka Kuzmich that he sang at The Met in 2009, brings them back to hushed sobriety with a harrowing tale of how he killed a prison guard.

The second act is given over almost entirely to sex, no small accomplishment with only men onstage. Gorjančikov strikes up an overtly affectionate relationship with Aljeja, a handsome youngster. The dark intimations of homosexuality (which are not in the libretto) quickly turn farcical, as the seven stooges put on a Les Ballets Trockadero-style performance for the prisoners that includes one simulated sex scene after another. Bizarrely, it perfectly fits the riotous, sometimes grotesque music Janáček wrote for the scene. And who knew that mop handles and pillowy plastic bags could be such stimulating sex toys?

The third act might be from another opera entirely. As the curtain rises the prisoners are back in tuxedos and wearing surgical masks, the only indication that the setting is supposed to be the prison hospital ward. The action unfolds in cold postmodern abstraction, mostly around a new piano (another one hangs upside-down from the ceiling). Movement is slow and stilted, singers are isolated, and the story told by the prisoner Šiškov is about a woman he abused and murdered. She is represented by Jana Vrána, a brave dancer forced to slither, shake and splay her way topless across the stage in painful Pina Bausch contortions. By the time the hanging piano starts to rise (presumably representing the wounded eagle, healed and set free), the enthusiasm of the first two acts is gone and the final image of dead bodies lying across the piano and on the floor provides a fittingly terminal ending.

Pavol Remenár (Šiškov), Štefan Margita (Luka Kuzmič) and Jana Vrána (Akulka) © Patrik Borecký
Pavol Remenár (Šiškov), Štefan Margita (Luka Kuzmič) and Jana Vrána (Akulka)
© Patrik Borecký

The real star of the May 14 première was conductor Robert Jindra, who did a masterful job bringing a difficult score to life. By turns dramatic, playful, emotionally extreme and wrenchingly dissonant, the music veers from catchy folk melodies to atonal textures, with abrupt changes and juxtapositions. The National Theatre Orchestra was nimble and sounded full-blooded under Jindra’s baton, capturing both the warmth and complexity of Janáček’s riveting score.

Until the production went off the rails in the third act, the staging matched the music’s inventive spirit and propulsive energy, aided by Radim Vizváry’s rambunctious choreography and Martin Špetlík’s dramatic lighting. Špinar’s ideas were bold, original and in keeping with the National Theatre’s recent efforts to freshen the Czech repertoire. The result just didn’t have much to do with Janáček and Dostoyevsky.

***11