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Angels of hope

Angels of hope

Leoš Janáček's works 'From the house of the dead' and 'Glagolitic mass' at the Janáček Festival in Brno. Review.

At the ceremonial openings of the Festival, the National Theatre Brno - Janáček Opera traditionally presents a new production. This year, at the eighth Janáček Festival, it was the composer's opera From the house of the dead and a stage version of the Glagolitic mass performed in the same evening, conducted by Jakub Hrůša and directed by Jiří Heřman.

We heard two masterpieces, in an unusual pairing, in a high-quality direction, with first-rate performers. (The article below is about the third performance of the production, on November 6.).)


From the house of the dead is the composer's ninth and last opera, the text of which was written by Janáček himself based on Dostoevsky's novel Notes from the house of the dead. The piece gives an insight into the world of a Siberian prison. (Dostoevsky himself spent years there for political reasons and drew on his experiences there when writing the work.) We listen to stories and monologues about dark past deeds, murders, hatred, and regret. The work was premiered at the National Theatre in Brno on April 12, 1930, more than a year and a half after the composer's death.

The Glagolitic mass is also one of Janáček's last works. Its premiere took place on December 5, 1927, in Brno. Instead of Latin, the Mass is sung in Old Church Slavonic. (The Glagolitic alphabet is the oldest known Slavic alphabet.) The composer did not intend the work to be performed in a church, not least because of the size of the orchestra, and not on the stage, but in a concert hall (with an organ).


The presentation of From the house of the dead and the Glagolitic mass in the same evening is a special combination, moreover, this was the first stage performance of the latter work.

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The question is: what justified the connection between them?

The writing of the Glagolitic mass was partly intertwined with the composition of Janáček's last opera. Both works were written at the end of the composer's life, during the most productive period of his career, and their musical language and style are similar. (Jakub Hrůša, the conductor of the current production, even called them 'siblings'.)

In the present production, however, it is not just about playing the two pieces one after the other. The creators of the performance – conductor Jakub Hrůša and stage director Jiří Heřman – believed they had discovered a deeper connection between the two works. As they understood, the Glagolitic mass can organically be connected to the opera, indeed, it is a 'sequel' to it. In the present staging, the prisoners in the afterlife (on the 'stage' of the Glagolitic mass) meet the women from their past and receive forgiveness by them. Because although the opera takes place in the world of male prisoners, women are at the centre of the stories presented in their monologues: they committed their crimes for women and because of women, without whom – in the words of Jiří Heřman – 'the world is a "dead house" for them'. As they approach death, their ghostly dreams are mixed with remorse and regret, and this is the point where the direction leads the story into the world of hope and purification: to the Glagolitic mass.

Connecting the two pieces in this way is arbitrary. There is no necessary connection between them, and this was not the intention of the composer either to have them performed together. However, the concept of the creators of the present performance is well thought-out. Therefore, although it is arbitrary, it can still be justified and is thus valid. It is also important to note that the association of the two Janáček works is only a thought experiment, during which the creators fully respected the autonomy of the works. The opera is not 'affected'; it ends as Janáček wrote it. Of course, among the characters of the Glagolitic mass, we meet again some people from the opera, but in this piece, rewriting or changing the plot is out of the question, because the Glagolitic mass is not a stage work. Therefore, the director is given a free hand here.

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The effect of the performance is, of course, different. The viewer does not go home in the same state of mind as if the evening ended with the somber beats of The house of the dead. In defence of the creators of this production, the depressing ending also bothered Janáček to a certain extent; he wrote Dostoevsky's comforting words on the opera's score: 'In every creature, a spark of God!'


The opera, like Dostoevsky's work, lacks a dramatic plot in the traditional sense. There is no real protagonist either. The novel does not seem in the least suitable to be made into an opera libretto, but Janáček refuted this. Thanks to his music and dramaturgical sense, the opera – in an adept direction – has an impressive power. The presentation of the daily life of the prisoners only means the surface; the real drama is hidden in the narratives and stories of the prisoners. By illustrating these, the director gets the opportunity to make us look behind the monotony of prison life and to watch real dramatic events on stage. His toolbox is further enriched by the pantomime scenes in Act 2, which can make the performance even more colourful, dynamic, and spectacular with an imaginative choreography.

The director Jiří Heřman took advantage of these tools, and by staging the opera and the Mass in one evening, he created a completely unique production.

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The scenery during the orchestral introduction, with the sets moving in harmony with the rhythm of the music, already promises a high-level theatrical experience. In the middle of the stage, from above, a male figure resembling Jesus hangs on chains. The two sides of the stage are bordered by huge wooden walls depicting prison barracks. The cold, snowy Siberian landscape with the frozen river projected behind the slowly rising back wall harmonizes well with the grey walls of the prison; the settings almost blend into the projected image. Soon many chains are being lowered from the ceiling; the picture is creepy. The centre of the stage descends, and the prison yard appears, with black-clothed, bald prisoners holding on to chains. The figure of Jesus rises once more, and the back wall is lowered again during the last majestic measures of the overture; now the free world can only be seen through the windows.

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With an unexpected directorial solution, the figure of Jesus has a double role: the male dancer also symbolizes the Eagle. The eagle motif runs throughout Janáček's opera: the caged bird, which is first tortured by the prisoners, regains its freedom at the end of the work. (By the way, the composer draws a parallel with great dramaturgical sense between the fate of the bird and one prisoner Gorjančikov: while the man is being whipped, the eagle is being tortured, the release of which coincides with Gorjančikov's release at the end of the work.)

The visuals of Act 2, which takes place in the Siberian summer, with the river Irtish in the background, and the prisoners taking apart the shipwreck on stage, are also realistic. The 'play-within-the-play', i.e., the festive performance of the prisoners – an 'opera' about the last day of Don Juan, followed by a pantomime about the miller's wife who cheats on her husband – is pathetic, and therefore believable. The 'farce' of the histrionic prisoners dressed as women, whining, giggling, with breasts glued from lampshades, making vulgar jokes intended to be 'naughty', and of the ones wearing silly devil costumes, is dynamic. But the staging of the scene – cleverly – does not want to be more spectacular than what can be expected from an amateur performance by prisoners. (By the way, the director also puts the prison 'management' in the very first row as spectators.) At the end of the act, the fight that breaks out between the prisoners, the appearance of violence, suddenly pulls us – and them – back to reality; a darkening stage image conveys the change in atmosphere.

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The director depicts the stories of the prisoners and their characters in an indicative manner, but with sufficient emphasis. The images of the persons from the past mostly march along the first, empty row of the auditorium, as silent characters: Aljeja's mother walks there during the boy's narration, just as Luisa appears during Skuratov's narration.

I found the sparse lighting of the stage problematic. The crowded cast makes orientation difficult for the viewer. Even the interpreters of the major roles are only in focus in a few scenes, after which they mingle again among the other prisoners. All of which prisoners wear black clothes and are shaved bald. It takes a real Janáček fan to follow who is who on stage at every moment of the performance (which is probably impossible without prior knowledge of the work). Playing most of the scenes in the semi-darkness makes things even more difficult for the viewers.

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Jiří Heřman decided – and based on his concept, this can be well justified – that the interval would take place after Act 2, and in the second half of the evening, the last act of the opera and the Glagolitic mass would follow each other. The scene in the prison hospital, the story of the dying prisoners suffering from fever dreams due to their physical and spiritual wounds, and their symbolic, otherworldly story in the Glagolitic mass thus form a closer unity and ensure a smoother transition between the two works.
After From the house of the dead, we hear the chirping of birds and the tolling of bells for a few minutes, then the themes of the Mass come to life one after the other; there is no shortage of symbols and ideas. Women dressed in white (now as angels) arrive, among them the female figures known from the prisoners' stories: Akulina and Luisa. The beams that the men carry on their backs in the Kyrie movement rise in the Slava movement, relieving them of their burdens. The background images are impressive: a moonlit, cloudy night, a forest in the morning mist, and rocky mountains. We see the sufferings of Jesus: he is taken down from the cross and placed on a huge white shroud (by the way, Mary Magdalene, who sits down next to him, is the same singer who plays the prostitute in the second act of the opera).
During Hosanna, unfulfilled and tragic loves come to life poignantly: now we see Skuratov and Luisa, and Akulina and Luka as couples. The positioning of the choir is well-thought-out and well-developed, interspersed with dance scenes based on simple choreography.

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The last seconds remain unforgettable for me. During the ferocious, ecstatic music that closes the Mass, the young prisoner Aljeja runs to the beautiful, green mountains. In that world, he is finally free.


From the house of the dead is a serious challenge for the singer soloists. On the one hand, it is a thankless task, because even the more important characters who perform longer monologues (Luka, Skuratov, Šiškov) are not really protagonists, but at the same time they have a difficult job: in the absence of a plot and interactions, they have to shape their character (the narrator) in the monologues, and not only the narrator but also, indirectly, the other characters they sing about, both vocally and dramatically. On the other hand, however – precisely because of the above – the task is also rewarding. They are on stage almost the entire time, and they are an important part of the performance and have a decisive role in the success or failure of the production. To a lesser extent, this is also true for the interpreters of Aljeja, Šapkin and Gorjančikov, and even for the character of the Prison Governor, who sing shorter parts but is also important in the story.

The singers interpreted Janáček's typically Czech, yet completely unique music – in which the composer mostly uses fragmented rhythms and melodies and follows the characteristics of his mother tongue so closely – with empathy, subtle psychological nuances, and accuracy.

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Luka was sung by the Italian tenor Gianluca Zampieri (he has such dramatic roles behind him as Otello, Siegfried and Bacchus). His voice is less bright, but strong and expressive. The singer has remarkable acting skills. In his big scene in Act 1, he could increase the tension minute by minute.

In the role of Šiškov, we heard baritone Pavol Kubáň, who sang for the first time in a Janáček opera. This could not be noticed in the least: he performed his monologue in the third act – this is the longest and psychologically most complex narration – convincingly.

Slovak tenor Peter Berger, who is (also) at home in singing Slavic and Russian operatic roles, portrayed Skuratov. With his passionate interpretation, he took on a prominent role not only in From the house of the dead but also in the Glagolitic mass, as he was one of the soloists of the latter work, too. (The tenor, the contralto and the bass solos were surprisingly divided between two singers each. Perhaps to include as many characters from the opera as possible in the Glagolitic mass.)

The same was true for the Ukrainian tenor Eduard Martynyuk: besides portraying Šapkin (as well as two minor roles), he also became a decisive performer in the Glagolitic mass, singing radiant top notes.

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Slovak mezzo-soprano Jarmila Balážova was an excellent choice for the breeches role of Aljeja, the young prisoner. Her pleasantly toned voice was combined with refined acting. Fortunately, she did not want to be too 'boyish' – a mistake often made by female singers portraying males. (Janáček's eternal love and muse, Kamila Stösslová, by the way – in the absence of a female protagonist – this time appears in the tender character of Aljeja.) She also sang the contralto solo of the Glagolitic mass, shared with Jana Hrochova, who played the prostitute in the opera.

In From the house of the dead, Akulina, the victim of Šiškov, appears only as an image in the memory of the man. Kateřina Kněžíková, who played Akulina, could attract the attention of the audience even as a silent character. As a soloist in the Glagolitic mass, she became a protagonist. With her powerful, full soprano voice, the Czech singer, possessing a wide repertoire, had a decisive role in the success of the performance.

The baritone Roman Hoza, who sang the role of Gorjančikov, credibly portrayed the figure of the elegantly arriving, indignant, but increasingly terrified and finally humiliated political prisoner.

Jan Šťáva played the sadistic prison governor with authoritativeness and aggression, who could only 'apologize' to Gorjančikov by repeatedly kicking him... He also got the bass part of the Glagolitic mass, shared with Josef Škarka, who appeared on stage as the prison doctor in the opera.

Finally, great recognition must go to the dancer Michal Heriban, who tirelessly portrayed the Eagle and Jesus, in the air, on the ground, standing, lying, dancing, twirling, defining the scenery of the production for an entire evening.


The choir – more precisely, the male choir in the opera and the mixed choir in the Mass - has an enormous task. The Choir of the Janáček Opera sang with clear diction and – despite the small inaccuracies resulting from the live performance – overall with precision, powerful sound, and with sufficient restraint in the quieter parts. The devoted acting of the members of the choir, both in From the house of the dead and the Glagolitic mass, also deserves praise.


Conductor Jakub Hrůša successfully kept the giant apparatus together, which – considering the large orchestra, the numerous soloists, and the choir – is an achievement worthy of recognition in itself. Of course, we got much more than that: the orchestra accurately developed each musical theme in both works, and throughout the evening a characteristic Janáček sound permeated the two productions. The balance of the choirs and the orchestra was sufficiently worked out, and the conductor also had time for the vocalists, making sure they always start singing on time and that they were in harmony with each other and with the rest of the ensemble.

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With its focused, authentic, and inspired playing, the Janáček Opera Orchestra provided us with a first-class performance, interpreting the piece in a manner worthy of the composer's intentions. This time, the kettledrums, which play a major role in both works, also made the scenery more spectacular: two of the three sets were placed on one side of the stage (the percussionists were also dressed as prison guards), and the third one in the orchestra pit. (By the way, in From the house of the dead, the traditional percussion instruments are supplemented by a saw, chains, and an axe, too!) The sound of the glittering violins, frequently playing 'up in the sky', the quick woodwinds and the soft harp were counterpointed by imposing, full brass sounds, characteristic cellos and double basses, thunderous timpani, and thrilling, virtuosic organ in the performance of both – rhythmically particularly difficult – works.


All the productions I have seen at the Janáček Theatre recently were followed by a standing ovation; it seems that this is mostly the custom here. This time, however, the enthusiasm was undoubtedly justified. We saw a thoroughly prepared, magnificently executed production that turned the evening into a grandiose Janáček celebration.
To me, the moment was surprising and touching, as after the usual bows, the entire orchestra appeared at the back of the stage, and the musicians, along with their instruments, marched to the front of the stage to bow.

The production can be viewed for half a year on the Opera Vision website, here: From the house of the dead / Glagolitic mass

Balázs Csák


photo: Marek Olbrzymek

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November 6, 2022, Janáček Festival, Janáček Theatre, Brno


Leoš Janáček:


Opera in three acts

Libretto by Leoš Janáček, based on F. M. Dostoyevsky's novel Notes from the house of the dead


Leoš Janáček:


Set designer: Tomáš Rusín


Costume designer: Zuzana Štefunková Rusínová

Lighting designer: Jiří Heřman

Dramaturg: Patricie Částková

Chorus masters: Martin Buchta, Pavel Koňárek

Choreographer: Jan Kodet

Conductor: Jakub Hrůša

Stage director: Jiří Heřman




From the house of the dead

Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov: Roman Hoza

Luka (Filka Morozov): Gianluca Zampieri

Skuratov: Peter Berger

Šiškov: Pavol Kubáň

Small prisoner/Prisoner 1/Forger/Čekunov : Lukáš Bařák

Prison Governor: Jan Šťáva

Aljeja: Jarmila Balážová

Akulina: Kateřina Kněžíková

Tall prisoner/Young prisoner/Voice from the Kyrgyz steppe/Prisoner actor/Prisoner 3: Zbigniew Malak

Shapkin/Drunk prisoner/Cheerful prisoner: Eduard Martynyuk

Prisoner with eagle/Prisoner 2/Kedril/Cherevin: Vít Nosek

An old man: Petr Levíček

Prisoner/Don Juan/Brahmin: Tadeáš Hoza

Priest: Josef Škarka

Cook: Kornél Mikecz

Prisoner b/Fierce prisoner: David Nykl

A harlot: Jana Hrochová

Guard 1: Vilém Cupák

Luisa: Edit Antalová

Eagle and Jesus: Michal Heriban

Aljeja's mother: Eva Novotná


Glagolitic mass

Soprano: Kateřina Kněžíková

Contralto: Jarmila Balážová, Jana Hrochová

Tenor: Peter Berger, Eduard Martynyuk

Bass: Jan Šťáva, Josef Škarka

Featuring the Choir and Orchestra of the National Theatre Brno - Janáček Opera



The Janáček Festival in Brno, held for the eighth time this year, takes place between November 2 and 20, 2022.

The festival is held every two years in Brno, the city where Leoš Janáček lived and worked for more than fifty years. In addition to operas, the festival's programme includes symphonic and chamber concerts, children's programs, and exhibitions. This year's theme of the festival, featuring performances of renowned Czech and foreign ensembles, is "Quo Vadis", which refers to Janáček's favourite spiritual cantata, composed by Feliks Nowowiejski.