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

By David Salazar

Leos Janacek is one of the most prolific Czech opera composers, many of his becoming major staples of the canon. 

For many, his most iconic work is “From the House of the Dead,” which had its world premiere on April 12, 1930 at the National Theatre Brno. Incidentally, the work also was his last. Because the composer died before the work was completely finished, there are a few different versions that diverged in some of the orchestration. 

Short Plot Summary

A political prisoner arrives at a Siberian Prison Camp. He is Alexandr Petrovitch Goryantchikov and upon his arrival, he is questioned and flogged by the prison governor. The prisoners start talking about how they wound up in the prison as they lament their respective fates. Alexandr is dragged in half-dead. 

The second Act shows Alexandr befriend Alyeyva and offers to teach him to read and right. Another prisoner, Skuratov tells his own story about how he killed the husband on his beloved Luisa. The prisoners stage a play about Don Juan and Kedril. Another prisoner provokes Alexandr and the result is that Alyeyva gets injured in the aftermath. 

Alexandr cares for Alyeyva. Other prisoners, Shapkin and Skuratov tell their respective stories. 

At the close of the opera, a drunk prison governor apologizes to Alexandr and tells him that he is pardoned and free. 

Watch and Listen

Here is a recording of the work led by Sir Charles Mackerras. 


Opera Wiki