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Between the grey prison walls of Dostoyevsky’s Irtysh barracks, a bedraggled group of convicts huddles. Their fear and desperation is evident in everything – in the way they hold their bodies, in the lines on their faces, and in the dry, clear, merciless sounds coming from the orchestra pit.

Between them, Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez have created an evening of music theatre so intense that when the curtain goes down you feel you have lived it, not merely watched it. This is Jánacek’s From the House of the Dead as it should be, an evening where crushing wretchedness meets exquisite hope.

It is 30 years since Chéreau and Boulez last worked together, for their fabled Bayreuth Ring. Boulez, 82, has declared that this will be the last time he conducts opera. This, then, is a meeting of old men, tackling the last work of an old man. The results are an object lesson in handicraft and intellectual rigour, more a beacon for the future than the end of an era.

Jánacek died in 1928, at the age of 74, before From the House of the Dead could be staged. The piece is extraordinary not only for its fresh and radical score, its fragmentary yet fluid dramaturgy, its violent mood and underlying glimmers of light, but also for its terrible prescience. Jánacek used Dostoyevsky’s Siberian stories as a starting-point for a bleak exploration of inhuman brutality in a prison camp environment. In the years to come, life was to imitate art in unimaginably grotesque ways.

From the House of the Dead is not an easy opera to watch, which may partly explain its comparative neglect. It is also a difficult opera to understand, not least because of the lack of conventional storyline or leading character. The friendship of political prisoner Petrovich with young inmate Alieia forms a framework for the action, in which four other prisoners tell their stories and two pantomimes are performed. A wounded eagle, tormented in the first act and released in the last, symbolises freedom.

Chéreau has woven a dense and gripping narrative from Jánacek’s patchwork, simplifying here, elaborating there. Adding a cast of 19 actors to the 19 sung roles and chorus, he creates an entire prison world, each character complex and utterly plausible. We see all the petty squabbles and strange hierarchies of prison life, its stresses and moments of relief. The Old Prisoner becomes the guardian of the eagle, here a fantastic puppet woven tenderly from found objects. The eagle’s release is handled with the skill of a true master.

When Petrovich is released and the dying Alieia weeps, the rest of the prisoners unite in a spontaneous play to distract the despairing youth with the illusion that the puppet-bird has really flown away. Jánacek sees “the spark of God in every creature”, and Chéreau reveals it with heart- rending clarity.

There is nothing new or modern about the evening. Chéreau and Boulez resist any urge to draw attention to themselves. Both simply listen to the score and the text, and communicate them as strongly as possible.

Each role has been painstakingly typecast, according to age and build and dramatic potential, and the singing is without exception superlative. John Mark Ainsley’s half-deranged Skuratov is pitiable yet compelling, Stefan Margita’s Luka seedy yet intriguing, Gerd Grochowski makes the murderous Shishkov almost likeable, Olaf Bär brings gentle strength to the part of Petrovich, Erik Stoklossa is a wrenchingly fragile Alieia, and the Arnold Schoenberg choir is outstanding in every respect.

Boulez keeps it all together with restraint and wisdom, drawing magnificent sounds from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. This is 100 minutes of sheer perfection. From Vienna, the production goes on to Amsterdam, Aix-en-Provence, the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. Catch it in one of these places if you possibly can.
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