A scene from From the House of the Dead
(© Ken Howard)
A scene from From the House of the Dead
(© Ken Howard)
Until now, Leos Janacek's From the House of the Dead has never been produced at the Metropolitan Opera. Neither has Esa-Pekka Salonen ever conducted the Met orchestra nor has Patrice Chereau ever staged a work in the huge, often intimidating space. Not only have all three oversights been rectified, it's difficult to imagine a better, more rousing version of this opera than the one now on view.

Adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky's fictionalized report on his years in a Russian prison, this ensemble piece is written in three relatively brief (and here intermissionless) acts. During it, the inmates, their keepers, and a few assorted visitors (a cleric, a few prostitutes) exist in tense accommodation to one another. Although there's no identifiable protagonist, Dostoevsky's stand-in Alexander Petrovitch Gorianchikov (Willard White) and three men who detail the deeds that landed them in jail -- Filka (Stefan Margita), Skuratov (Kurt Streit), Shishkov (Peter Mattei) -- step forward. In two instances, their arias, all stunningly sung, with Mattei's the final piece de resistance, focus on ill-fated love as the motive for murder.

The other performers -- with the entire cast singing in Czech (subtitles projected on the set) -- reach their level in smaller singing roles. Chief among them are Eric Stoklossa as a young prisoner and Vladimir Ognovenko as the prison commandant. There are also two linked holiday pantomimes that echo the crimes of passion revealed in the sung confessions; the actors in these pantos, several of them travestying women, are way up to snuff.

All the participants wear Caroline de Vivaise's costumes, which look as if they could have been shopped for at flea markets and may have been. Designer Richard Peduzzi's high stone-walled notion of the prison enclosures also well suits the opera's depiction of daily life. Through the proceedings, a fake eagle -- eventually meant to be taken as real -- is manipulated. It's a symbol of the freedom for which the prisoners yearn and which few of them hope to achieve.

When composing the opus -- an atypical entry in his canon -- Janacek made a note to remind himself that "in every human being is a spark of God." From start to finish, he stuck to the Dostoevskyan notion. For that reason, the writing mixes the brassy strident with stringed lyricism. The score -- which Salonen understands implicitly and has completely conveyed to the Met musicians -- includes hammers and, towards the end, what sounds like the most enthusiastic use of anvils since Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore.