From the House of the Dead
From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého domu in Czech) is an opera by Leoš Janáček, in three acts. The libretto was translated and adapted by the composer from the novel by Dostoyevsky. It was the composer's last opera, premiered on 12 April 1930 in Brno, two years after his death.
Janáček worked on this opera knowing that it would be his last, and for it he broke away from the habit he had developed of creating characters modeled on his love interest Kamila Stösslová, although the themes of loneliness and isolation can clearly be seen as a response to her indifference to his feelings. There is only one female character, and the setting, a Siberian prison, presents a large ensemble cast instead of one or several prominent leads. There is no narrative to the work as a whole, but individual characters narrate episodes in their lives, and there is a "play-within-a-play" in Act 2.
From the House of the Dead was virtually finished when Janáček died. Two of his students, believing the orchestration was incomplete, "filled out" large portions of the score and adapted the ending to be more optimistic in tone. In addition to the work of Bretislav Bakala, Ota Zitek made changes to the text and sequence of events in the opera. Decades later, a version closer to the composer's intentions superseded that version, and it is the one most often heard today. Some productions, however, still use the earlier version's ending to lessen the bleakness of the story.
The opera requires a vast orchestra, including chains as a percussion instrument to evoke the sound of the prisoners.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast, April 12, 1930
(Conductor: Břetislav Bakala)
|Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov||baritone|
|Aljeja, a young Tartar||mezzo-soprano|
|Luka Kuzmič (Filka Morozov)||tenor|
|Cook (a prisoner)||baritone|
|Blacksmith (a prisoner)||baritone|
|Prisoner/Don Juan/The Brahmin||bass|
|Male chorus: prisoners (taking silent parts in Act 2 plays); guests, prison guards (silent)|
Act 1 
A Siberian prison camp on a winter morning
The prisoners get up, two get into a dispute, as the rumour is spread that a nobleman will be the new arrival ("Přivednou dnes pána"). He is Alexandr Petrovitch Goryantchikov, a political prisoner. The prison governor interrogates him and orders him to be flogged("Jak tě nazývají"). The prisoners have found a wounded eagle and tease the bird until the guards order them to their work ("Zvíře! Nedá se!"). The prisoners lament their fate ("Neuvidí oko již"); one of them, Skuratov, recalls his previous life in Moscow ("Já mlada na hodech byla"). Another, Luka Kuzmitch, tells how he incited a rebellion and killed an officer in his first prison camp ("Aljeja, podávej nitku"). Just as he describes his own flogging, Goryantchikov is dragged in, half dead ("Aljeja! Niti!").
Act 2 
Six months later, at the Irtysh river
Goryantchikov has befriended the young tartar Alyeya, asks him about his family and offers to teach him to read and write ("Milý, milý Aljeja"). The prisoners finish work as a holiday begins and a priest blesses the food and the river ("Alexandr Petrovič, bude prazdnik"). Skuratov tells his story: He loved a German girl, Luisa, but when she was to be married to an old relative, Skuratov shot the groom ("Jaj, já pustý zbytečný člověk" - "Přešel den, druhý, třetí"). For the holiday, the prisoners stage a play about Don Juan and Kedril ("Dnes bude můj poslední den") and the pantomime about a beautiful, but unfaithful miller's wife ("Pantomima o pěkné mlynářce"). After the play, a prisoner tries to provoke Goryantchikov, as the nobleman has the means to drink tea even in prison ("Pěkně hráli, co?"). Alyeya gets injured.
Act 3 
The prison hospital
Goryantchikov looks after Alyeya, who is happy that he now knows how to read and write ("Isak, prorok boží"). Luka lies dying of tuberculosis and insults Tchekunov for his servile mannerism towards Goryantchikov. Shapkin tells the story of his arrest as a vagrant and how an officer pulled his ear ("Ó, bratři! Ta bolest, to nic!"). Skuratov has gone mad. During the night, Shishkov tells his story, interrupted by the impatient questions of Tcherevin ("Má dět'átka milá"). A rich merchant had a daughter, Akulka, whom a friend of Shishkov's, one Filka Morozov, claimed to have dishonoured ("Ty, pravil Filka" - "A Filka křičí"). She was married to Shishkov who found out that she was a virgin ("A já byl, bratříčku, až do do svatby zpit"). When he discovered that she still loved Filka, Shishkov killed her ("Na druhý den"). Just then, Luka dies and Shishkov recognises him as Filka. A guard fetches Goryantchikov. Second scene. A drunk prison governor apologises to Goryantchikov for the whipping and tells him that he has been pardoned and is free ("Petrovičí, já jsem tě urazil"). The prisoners release the healed eagle before the guard order them back to work.
- Decca: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Sir Charles Mackerras, conductor (recording of original version)
- Deutsche Grammophon (DVD): Olaf Bär, Eric Stocklossa, Štefan Margita; Arnold Schoenberg Chor; Mahler Chamber Orchestra; Pierre Boulez, conductor; Patrice Chéreau, director
- Supraphon: Richard Novak, Vilem Pribyl, Jaroslav Horacek, Beno Blachut; Czech Philharmonic Chorus; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Václav Neumann, conductor
- Hans Hollander, "Janáček's Last Opera" in The Musical Times, 97(1362), 407-409 (1956).
- Simeone N. Bakala: Moravian Conductor. Czech Music, Vol 6, No 3, 1980.
- John Tyrrell: "From the House of the Dead", Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed February 17, 2009), (subscription access)
- Winton Dean, "Record Review" of Janáček: From the House of the Dead. The Musical Times, 122(1663), 607 (1981).
- Gavin Plumley's Leoš Janáček site, information on House of the Dead Retrieved 25 November 2009