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From the House of the Dead

Alexander Petrovic Gorjancikov : Olaf Bär
Aljeja : Erik Stoklossa
Filka / Luka : Stefan Margita
Big convict : Peter Straka
Little convict : Vladimir Chmelo
The commandant : Jiri Sulzenko
The convict overseer : Hans Zednik
Skuratov : John Mark Ainsley
Cekunov : Jan Galla
Prostitute : Susannah Haberfeld
Šapkin : Peter Hoare
Kedril : Marian Pavlovic
Šiskov : Gerd Grochowski
Cerevin : Andreas Conrad

Director : Patrice Chéreau
Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Arnold Schoenberg Choir/Pierre Boulez (conductor)
Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, Holland

Deutsche Gramophom DVD 00440 074 4426 [100 mins + extras 40 mins]

A sensation in Amsterdam in June 2007 (see Anne Ozorio's full illustrated review in Music Web) this historic reunion of Boulez and Chéreau has transferred well to DVD.

With the text practically all taken direct from Dostoyevsky, it is almost unrelentingly harsh and brutal. We found it so intense and draining that we couldn't watch it through in a sitting.

The music is endlessly fascinating in its complexity and allusiveness, not supporting the voices in a conventional way. Less lyrical than Jenufa or Katya, it takes time to absorb it, but then it sticks in the mind and memory. This is helped by the substantial orchestral rehearsal footage included as a valuable 'extra', a demonstration of Boulez's focused methods - not a second wasted in securing exactly what he wants.

The director's work with the singers is equally fascinating, but quite bewildering to watch, so intuitive is Patrice Chéreau's approach, with minimal verbalisation. It seems impossible that the singers, such as John Mark Ainsley - more often to be seen in early music such as Rameau's operas - could absorb the complex movements developed by Chéreau with the close collaboration of Thierry Thieu Niang, but they seem to be responding comfortably to a teaching method at the opposite pole to Boulez's with the orchestra.

By the time you get to the end, with the release of the aristocrat amongst the prisoners and of the symbolic eagle into the sky, you will want to see it all again.

But not until after a due delay before entering this savage enclosed world again, in which an underlying warmth emerges in the unhappy community which invades our living rooms, finally justifying the brutality we come to feel we are enduring alongside the prisoners and their hapless guards.

Peter Grahame Woolf