Janáček’s Operatic Adaptation of Dostoevskij’s Notes from the House of the Dead

Leos Janáček’s setting of Dostoevskij’s fictional memoir in his 1928 opera From the House of the Dead has generally been considered to be maximally resonant with the original. For many critics, Janáček’s adjustments in the libretto entail mostly a sharpening of dramatic contrasts from the memoir, such as that between the prisoners and their jailers, and between Gorjančikov and the other prisoners (Vogel, Hollander). In this paper, I will argue that Janáček’s transformation of the original is more radical, completely altering not only its structure, but also Dostoevskij’s “seemingly cold, non-committal description of outer reality” (Černohovská). In light of Baxtin’s claim that artistic works “outgrow what they were in the epoch of their own creation” and gain posthumous meaning, I will explore how Janáček’s departures allow him to develop various creative potentials within the original.

Many of these departures relate to Dostoevskij’s biographical circumstances. Gorjančikov’s detached objectivity belies the truly horrifying impact the experience had on Dostoevskij. Janáček makes Gorjančikov a political prisoner and gives him a more active, integrated role in the prison, where in Dostoevskij his role is more that of an observer. Such changes bring about an erasing of authorial artifice and the refraction of fictional material back to its original sources. Janáček also casts the other prisoners in more involved and sympathetic roles as listeners of each other’s stories than in the original. Further, the prisoners are more fully developed psychologically, exhibiting greater pain over their past crimes and losses. Thus Janáček’s humanization of the prisoners goes further than that of Dostoevskij, as he displays their inner suffering more vividly.

Janáček’s music also contributes to the development of potentials within the original. Just as the dramatic structure of the libretto ties together events disconnected in the memoir, his repetition of motifs also connects various parts of the narrative. His particular musical idiom, heavily influenced by folk songs, goes along with an emphasis on folk elements of the original. Images of birds in Dostoevskij, for example, are primarily of descriptive interest. Janáček, however, foregrounds this element by using the eagle as a symbol throughout the opera. Thus Janáček’s music acts as a prism through which it becomes possible to see the folk potentials within Dostoevskij’s text.

In this light I will also consider the posthumous and controversial revisions made to the score by Břetislav Bakala and Osvald Chlubna. Although these revisions depart from Janáček’s intent in many ways (for example, adding a cheerful conclusion), they also interact in an interesting way with the original, and may possibly be justified as a continuation of Janáček’s own “revisions” to Dostoevskij.