Opera For Beginners

Opera Profile: Janacek’s ‘From the House of the Dead’

Premiering on April 12, 1930, “From the House of the Dead” is the final opera composed by Leos Janacek. Adapted from the novel of the same name written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this opera is distinct from others composed by Janacek as it does not deal with themes of love. This work explores isolation and the past deeds of men held within a Serbian prison camp.

When Janacek passed away in 1928, two of his students took up the task of adding the final touches to what was a nearly-complete score; although they changed the ending to one more optimistic in tone, years later would come a version that is more faithful to Janacek’s vision, and is the version most often seen today.

Short Plot Summary

The opera begins during winter in a Serbian prison camp. There is a rumor going through the camp that a nobleman will be arriving soon. The man turns out to be Alexandr Petrovitch Goryantchikov, a political prisoner who is interrogated and whipped shortly after his arrival. The prisoners find an eagle that has been injured, having fun with the bird before they are ordered back to work. As one of the prisoners, named Luka, recalls how he started a riot in his first prison and killed one of the officers, for which he received a whipping, Goryantchikov is brought in, nearly dead from his experience under the lash. Half a year later, Goryantchikov has befriended a tartar named Alyeya, whom he teaches to read and write. During a holiday, the prisoners perform a play about Don Juan; shortly after, one of the prisoners tries to goad Goryantchikov into a fight, angered that the latter is able to receive tea in prison. During the dispute, Alyeya is injured.

In the prison hospital, Goryantchikov tends to Alyeya as Luka lies in a bed, dying of tuberculosis. Another prisoner, Shishkov, tells the story of his own imprisonment: he was married to a rich merchant’s daughter whom one of his friends, named Filka, claimed to have bedded. Although Shishkov’s wife was a virgin on their wedding night, when he learned that she still loved Filka, Shishkov murdered her in jealousy. When Luka in the nearby bed passes away, Shishkov recognizes him as his former friend, Filka. Guryantchikov is then summoned by a drunk prison warden, who tells him that he has been pardoned. As the guards order the prisoners to work once more, they release the now-healed eagle.

Watch and Listen

Here is a recording led by Sir Charles Mackerras.

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