Opera in three acts
Duration: 1hour 30 minutes without interval
Music: Leoš Janáček (Composed 1927-8)
Libretto: Composer after Dostoevsky
Premiered: Brno 12/4/1930
(arranged by Osvald Chlubna and Břetislav Bakala)
Catalogue Number: JW I/11
'On the way to the House of the Dead'
Why do I go into the dark, frozen cells of criminals with the poet of
Crime and Punishment? Into the minds of criminals and there I find a
spark of God. You will not wipe away the crimes from their brow, but
equally you will not extinguish the spark of God. Into what depths it
leads - how much truth there is in his work!
See how the old man slides down from the oven, shuffles to the corpse,
makes the sign of the cross over it, and with a rusty voice sobs the
words: 'A mother gave birth even to him!'
Those are the bright places in the house of the dead.
(this passage was found in the composer's clothes after his death)
Janáček’s final excursion into the genre marked yet another change in
subject matter, although it shares with the other works a generally
humanitarian scope. Where Kát'a Kabanová, Příhody Lišky
Bystroušky and Vĕc Makropulos had all followed on from each
other with alarming pace, this final work took a couple of years to find
its feet in Janáček’s plans. The work, with Kát'a Kabanová,
illustrates a continuing preoccupation for all things Russian in
Janáček’s works. The reason behind his choice of subject is not known.
During his career he had toyed with the subjects of Tolstoy’s Anna
Karenina and his play Zhivoy trup, but it
was with Dostoevsky’s reportage that he found his final subject. His
preoccupation with the conditions described in the writing is described
in much detail to Kamila Stösslová. What is most clear, however,
throughout the work is that despite the harrowing nature of the setting
and the events of the opera Janáček’s warmth wins out. This is joined
with multiple but lucid character vignettes and beautiful images of
freedom; the release of a bird, the river in Act II and the celebration
of Easter so as to create an uplifting whole. Act III of the opera was
the work found on Janáček’s desk after his death. With the heady notion
that this opera was the composer's very last work, coupled with the
thinness of material, both textual and musical, came the idea that the
work was unfinished. The 1930 premiere of the work was therefore given
in an erroneous ‘correction’ by Ota Zítek (the producer who filled out
some of the text and stage directions) and Osvald Chlubna and Břetislav
Bakala (both pupils of Janáček, who reorchestrated the work). Together
they created a finale that was more optimistic than the original work.
It was as such that the work was disseminated via performance and
publication. It was only in 1964 that Universal Edition reinstated the
original ending as an appendix to the score, and performances from
thereon have tended to use that ending. Attempts have been made to
reinstate Janáček’s original orchestrations (a perennial problem with
performances of all his operas), and the forthcoming Tyrrell/Mackerras
score will help to eliminate such obstacles. The work, despite its
inherent warmth and tenderness has not always faired well on stage.
History dispensed in the post-1945 period a general avoidance of works
concerning Prisoner of War camps, and it wasn’t really until the 60s
that the work grew in popularity. Recently in Britain WNO (with David
Pountney) and ENO have promoted performances of the work (most recently
in 1997), yet many other large houses, including Covent Garden and the
Met have been inhospitable to the work, and, as yet, it remains unstaged
in its original language in Britain.
A Siberian Prison camp. Morning. Winter.
The prisoners are woken. They gossip about the new prisoner, a nobleman,
who is to arrive that morning. The Large prisoner quarrels with the
Small; Luka Kuzmich separates them.
The new prisoner, Goryanchikov, arrives and is interrogated by the
Governor, who orders him to be flogged.
The prisoners bait a wounded eagle; the Governor encourages his soldiers
to beat Goryanchikov.
Some of the prisoners leave to work in the fields; others remain, making
shoes. Skuratov recalls his past in Moscow, but his wild singing and
dancing infuriates Luka Kuzmich and the other prisoners. When he finally
collapses and is silent, Luka relates his previous experiences in
prison. In particular he tells how he incited his fellow prisoners
against a particularly vicious officer, and killed the officer when he
came to investigate the disturbance. As he concludes by relating the
flogging he received, Goryanchickov is dragged in, half dead from his
Late afternoon. Spring.
Goryanchikov asks the Tartar boy Layeya about his family and offers to
teach him to read and write.
It is Easter Day, and when the day’s work is over, local citizens appear
with gifts for the prisoners; the priest blesses them.
Skuratov tells the story of Luisa – A German girl he wanted to marry.
When instead she married a wealthy watchmaker, he went to the wedding
and shot the bridegroom.
On an improvised stage, the prisoners p3erform two plays: ‘Kedril and
Don Juan’ – a version of the Don Giovanni story – and ‘The Lovely
After the plays, a prisoner goes off with a prostitute. While Alyeya and
Goryanchikov are drinking tea, the Small Prisoner, infuriated by
Goryanchikov’s privileged status, attacks and wounds Alyeya.
Alyeya cries out in his fever. Luka, who is dying, pours contempt on
Chekunov for his servile behaviour towards Goryanchkov. Shapkin
describes how a magistrate almost pulled his ears off.
Shishkov, egged on by Cherevin, tells the story of Akulka (Akulina):
Filka Morozov, his rival, claimed that he had slept with her, and
publicly dishonoured her. Shishkov was persuaded to marry her, and at
first believed her innocent. Later Filka persuaded him he was mistaken.
When Shishkov discovered that she still loved Filka, he killed her.
Luka dies as the story ends, and Shishkov recognises him as Filka. A
Guard summons Goryanchikov.
Morning. The Prison.
The Governor, drunk, apologises to Goryanchikov, and announces his
release. Alyeya says farewell to Goryanchikov. The prisoners release the
eagle, whose wing is now healed.
The Guards order them back to work.
Tyrrell, John: Janáček’s Operas: A Documentary Account (London:
Tyrrell, John: Czech Opera (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Singing in Czech: A Guide to Czech Lyric Diction and Vocal Repertoire
(Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2001)
Full score of Chlubna/Bakala Edition from Universal Edition,
as well as forthcoming new edition from copyists’ score by Tyrrell/Mackerras
Zahradníček, Žítek, Jedlička etc., VPO: Mackerras (Decca 430375)