From the House of the Dead
Royal Opera House, 22nd March 2018
Now this is it what opera is all about. Not just some portly punters, (though a couple of the chaps here were carrying as much timber as me), parking themselves mid-stage and belting out their arias. No here we get a concept, and some, a detailed design to back it up, lashings of action and even more acting, maybe too much, and a score which fits the prose of the libretto. I see it has wound up a few die-hards who would probably be happier with some Puccini-esque love mush but this is the real deal for me.
Now Janacek famously never made his life easy when it came to picking the subject matter for his operas. Infanticide, forest animals, adultery and suicide, the delusion of eternal life, a warrior matriarchy, a meta tragic opera. What a bout a feel-good rom-com eh Leos? Anyway From the House of the Dead is drawn from Dostoevsky’s eponymous novel which Janacek translated and adapted in his own libretto and is set in a Siberian labour camp. It has only one assigned female character, a prostitute, though one of the prisoners is normally a soprano, though not here. There is no narrative arc. It is largely episodic and expositional with the main characters steeping out of the ensemble to describe the crimes that led to their incarceration. There is a play within a play which takes up most of the second act. The music is pretty intense, lots of that special Janacek ostinato rhythm, with not much in the way of quiet reflection. There is no ending or resolution to speak of.
It was Janacek’s last opera and was pretty much complete on his death. But a couple of his students decided it wasn’t and that he can’t possibly have meant what he had left on the page or that an unresolved ending was appropriate so they “enhanced” the score significantly and changed the ending. Sounds like Hollywood today. Anyway all this gloss has been cleared out to produce a score much closer to Janacek’s original intentions., here further refined by John Tyrell’s critical edition. Intentions that require a vast orchestra, here spilling out into the side of the stalls. Chains anyone? The Orchestra of the ROH under the baton of Mark Wigglesworth sounded fantastic. I can’t imagine a better conductor of Janacek’s operas.
This though was all about the director though. Krzysztof Warlikowski doesn’t hold back. The overture, which lays out Janacek’s main ideas, which are subject to subtle variations throughout the three acts, is accompanied by a video projection of French philosopher, and winder-up-in chief -of-reactionary-conservatives, Michel Foucault, theorising on the nature of power, punishment and control in the modern prison system. The curtain rises to a solitary basketball player and a brutal modern prison yard. The athlete turns out to be “Eagle” standing in for the bird that represents freedom in a classic staging. Novel huh? A glass box acts as the governor’s office and, later, as the stage for the play within a play. Throughout the whole ensemble is in movement, offering multiple perspectives on the stories. From my perch in the back of the gods it wasn’t always easy to know who was singing but no matter. I’ll gladly swap a bit of narrative confusion for all this visual content. All thanks to designer Malgorzata Szczesniak.
And it isn’t that tricky to work out what’s going on. Gorjancikov, (I’ll refrain from full names or we’ll be here all day), played by the extraordinary Willard White, now in his 70s, pitches up. He’s a political prisoner and toff so the governor (Alexander Vassiliev), as you do, has him beaten up. Skuratov (Ladislav Elgr) talks about his life in Moscow. Luka (Stefan Margita, who was very impressive) tells how he and a crew killed a prison officer. Gorjancikov befriends young Aljeja (Pascal Charbonneau) and teaches him to read and write. Skuratov prefaces the play within a play by telling how he killed the bloke his girlfriend was forced to marry. The two plays are performed in bawdy fashion. The Prostitute (Allison Cook) gets involved. There is a bit of a dust up. Sapkin (Peter Hoare) describes his interrogation, Siskov (Johan Reuter, another excellent performance, though the tattoos help convince) tells of how he killed his wife because she was still in love with the village w*anker Filka, who, sharp intake, turns out to be Luka, who has, second sharp intake, just dropped dead. Antonic (Graham Clark) says he should still be forgiven, the moral of Janacek’s tale. Everyone, however “evil” can be forgiven, we all have the “spark of God” apparently. Gorjancikov is released. The end.
So, as you can see, not much in the way of plot. Yet the stories, which are elaborated through the play within a play structure, are compelling and the atmosphere of tension, claustrophobia, frustration and violence, and yes a bit of confusion, travelled right up to the back of the amphitheatre. The performances of the cast, inside all this action, are powerful enough to bring life to the characters; best of the bunch is Nicky Spence as Nikita who really can act and sing simultaneously. These are men who have done wrong, really wrong, but Mr Warlikowksi, in his dramatic staging, tellingly makes the point that they are victims, of their own warped masculinity if nothing else, as well, who need help not punishment to the point of death. And he does this by sidestepping the religiosity of the source material.
Loved it. More of Mr Warlikowski and Ms Szczesniak artistic partnership please.