METROPOLITAN OPERA | From the House of the Dead

janacekcleanup
[the trash collectors]

Leoš Janáček, From the House of the Dead
[Z mrtvého domu]
Wednesday, December 2, 2009, 8PM

Production: Patrice Chéreau
Associate Director: Thierry Thieu Niang
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Main Cast: Willard White (Alexandr Gorjančikov), Eric Stoklossa (Aljeja)
Stefan Margita (Filka Morozov)

How to make a narrative of so relentless yet monotonous, time-ravaging and exitless an experience as life in this Siberian prison camp? Janàček’s oneiric, episodic opera—a very selective adaptation of Dostoevsky’s memoir-novel Notes from the House of the Dead [Записки из мертвого дома]—does not err that way. What does happen here: a death, an education, an unredemptive recognition, an evanescent collaboration. Only one of the men has a definite future outside. Other prisoners sing songs that refer invariably to their lives before, what landed them in the hope-shorn present. That one of them falls dead during this lean duration, hardly 100 minutes and sans intermission, gives us but an accidental glimpse into the men’s collectively terminal prospects. (And when Filka/Luka dies while Shishkov insistently, obliviously keeps singing, story-song takes on a Scheherazade effect.) Save the sparse chance encounter, enmity or complicity with one another from the outside—we’re never sure just how long ago—they are joined only by their common condition. Save sympathy for and sublimation through a winged animal they tend back to flight, they seem barely related in feeling. These are men who have wronged and are wronged. Dostoevsky’s stand-in, political prisoner Gorjančikov—whose entrance launches the drama but whose own past stays unknown—is the only character who attempts meaningful action within the prison, but his attempt to give young Aljeja a future (by teaching him to read) occurs only at the very margins.

Patrice Chéreau’s set of minimalist but hulking geometries and gunmetal grays in the prison yard, sparse thin-frame beds in the barracks, lends an industrial air to the premises. Over the course of the overture, materializing one by one from darkness, thirty-some prisoners slowly tread onto stage—lifeless, lumbering figures in search of space. We see the joyless swinging of buckets, hear the cold crackling of ankle shackles. One man in a corner lights a cigarette—retrieving something like personal experience thereby—and in the darkness, by default, the spark and smoke mark him as almost individual. A brawl suddenly erupts between two men for no apparent reason, because in this place there’s every reason, and the way their peers immediately converge at that wrestling knot to break it up reveals at once this group’s self-regulation and, such bare and by now habitual restoration of equilibrium apart, disaggregation as its default. In this meticulous opening scene Chéreau shows two other circumstances under which these men will readily self-assemble: the rough but swift lining up for sop ladled from buckets; the game to be had of kicking around a shoe as a ball.

The eagle, about which there’s been much discussion, soon suggests another, more poignant and more promising coming together. Upon discovering this wounded bird fallen into their midst, one prisoner starts running around with a blanket cape and stew-pot helmet in wishful mimicry. But other prisoners try raising the bird into the air. This image of arms raised aloft, the bird the high vertex of their bodies and their longings, was absolutely unforgettable. Having now seen this in person—from the nearness of the tenth row in orchestra—one can judge as moot the controversy surrounding the intended verisimilitude of this bird. Whatever Janàček’s vision, I’m not sure Chéreau intended this moment to constitute an event any more singular than the characters’ cycling through of twice-told tales. Indeed, when eventually freed into flight—to cries of “The eagle is czar!”—the bird is furtively tucked back, wings folded, into the old man’s coat.

My favorite directorial moment in this staging comes during the transition between the First and Second Acts: an avalanche of paper rubbish crashing in from above onto the vacated stage, leaving the entire set smoking with dust and debris like some aftermath of war. Not manna from heaven but an injunction to useless labor, this mess draws the men back to slowly repopulate the stage with clean-up baskets and a heavy work-song. In an affecting use of real time, the stage by the end of the scene has been entirely cleared.

In the libretto, between personal histories and two pantomimes, some solitary lines cut through. “A prisoner owns nothing.” “My dear children—I’ll never see you again.” “You’re my father!” cries Aljeja when bidding his mentor and friend farewell, while Gorjančikov can only reply, “My child! I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.” But of all the heartbreaking truths surely this is the most tragic: “My eyes will never again see the land where I was born.”

There is much to be written on opera’s treatment of prison life. The pertinent scenes in Fidelio and Don Carlo would be richest next to From the House of the Dead, although in both of those works the inevitable individuations of romantic love get in the way of more radically exploring the possibility of populous camaraderie, while here the possibility proves precarious even when no other relation can suffice to surrogate.

On the issue of the supertitles: shifting placement helped them to melt into the set, and these projections could even have implied a quiet acknowledgment of the drama’s textual origins. I’d love to see the Met incorporate this method into other productions.

Revolutionary Roads: Robert Kramer at the Harvard Film Archive

RK Route1 Poster

A long-form poet of political cinema, Robert Kramer (1939-1999) may be the greatest American filmmaker we hardly knew. His unique alloys of fiction and documentary chronicle the doings and undoings of the revolutionary Left from the Sixties through the Eighties. Yet the perspectives offered in his films are prismatically personal: the hesitations of a militant on the eve of armed revolution, the ambivalent patriotism of a returning exile, the passions and prejudices of a lobster fisherman and a sardine-canning woman, a Southern Baptist campaigner and a New England Wiccan, inheritors of Civil War pedigrees and immigrants recently arrived. Although Kramer died before Bush fiascos and Obama prospects, his vigilant examinations of the American experience remain moving and timely.

Nearly a decade after his death, a trio of Kramer’s highest-impact films returns to the Harvard Film Archive, September 26 to 28, in “Robert Kramer’s Reports from the Road.” “Ice” (1969), the earliest work, is a pseudo-documentary thriller set within the operations of a militant radical group. “Milestones” (1975) tracks a set of loosely connected characters amid a sedated political landscape, as each seeks out a conscionable existence through communal, familial, or individual transformation. In the five-month-long drive (and 255-minute-long footage) that gives us “Route One / USA” (1989), Kramer delivers a rich array of under-represented voices along the highway from Fort Kent to Key West—in the spirit of a Robert Frank or a Studs Terkel, and resulting in nothing less than a people’s history of the late 80s.

A longer Kramer series unfolded this July at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. Although, yet precisely because, Kramer’s work is nearly impossible to find in library collections or to purchase copies of—and the following clips are both utterly unrepresentative and already rare—no one with even the faintest interest in the documentary tradition or in the American century at twilight should miss these screenings. (In a heartening nod to Kramer, incidentally, the annual summer International Seminar on Documentary Film has been calling itself Doc’s Kingdom.)

A clip from “Ice”:

A clip from “Milestones”:

A clip from “Route One / USA”:

‘Damage’ (dir. Malle, 1992)

damage

Like Last Tango in Paris and Unfaithful, Damage is a film that explores—with punishing severity—the nightmarish consequences of lustful abandon. The acting excels within the category of tense facial tableaux: Jeremy Irons as MP Stephen Fleming, at once wooden and craven, Juliette Binoche’s Anna Barton trancey and transfixing, her gaze by turns pleading and rejecting. But all this thespian potential is confined within what turns out to be a morality tale that lunges toward fatalism (and literally into fatality) just when it’d need to grapple with complexity. The hurt son backs up over the low railing of a high staircase and falls to his death. The father grows his hair long, retreats to some inconspicuous Italianate town, subsists on sparse slices of cheese, all the while living daily with a photograph of himself, son, and their joint ex-lover wallpapering his monastic room. We learn that Anna eventually returned to her adolescent love and bore a child with him. This, reflects Stephen, reveals her to have been the same as everyone else.

What a pedestrian insight—and one nearly irrelevant to this particular story. Anna’s initial refusal to be possessed—the only semi-rigorous premise of the film—has fizzled embarrassingly. Is real life, it turns out, the only place where the human animal can stray from monogamy and be allowed, justly or not, to survive, within society still, and without retracting and contracting into yet another dyad? Has the dyad come to represent the only alternative to alienation?

Labor histories

Ingmar Bergman, in his introduction to Four Screenplays:

There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, laborers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.

Bertolt Brecht, ‘Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters’ [‘Questions from a Worker who Reads,’ trans. Michael Hamburger]:

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song,
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years’ War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.