sat 24/03/2018

From the House of the Dead, Royal Opera review - Janáček's prison oddity prompts hot tears | reviews, news & interviews

From the House of the Dead, Royal Opera review - Janáček's prison oddity prompts hot tears

From the House of the Dead, Royal Opera review - Janáček's prison oddity prompts hot tears

Hallucinatory intensity from Mark Wigglesworth and Krzysztof Warlikowski

Willard White's Gorjančikov experiences prison life in all its brutalityAll images by Clive Barda

A political prisoner is brutally initiated into the life of a state penitentiary, and leaves it little over 90 minutes later. Four inmates reveal their brutal past histories with elliptical strangeness - each would need an episode of something like Orange is the New Black - and two plays staged during a holiday for the convicts take up about a quarter of the action. I won't say that director Krzysztof Warlikowski makes complete sense of Janáček's maverick take on Dostoyevsky's semi-fictionalised prison memoir - occasionally he even rather overloads it - but everything on stage has a feverish intensity equal to the extraordinary sounds we hear from the pit.

Which in the hands of Mark Wigglesworth, already a superlative Janáček conductor on the evidence of his ENO Jenůfa, and the Royal Opera players sometimes defy belief in what is, astonishingly and shamefully, the House's first run of this unique masterpiece (English and Welsh National Operas, Opera North and Scottish Opera have all done the feverishness proud). Muted horns buzz furiously against shrill high frequencies, instruments are forced to the extremes of their registers; and yet there are such sudden, surging moments of terrible beauty, though rarely any respite. The musical white-heat even overwhelms Warlikowski's interesting but not entirely successful attempt to counterpoint the Prelude with Michel Foucault's thought-provoking words on the prison system; the intellectual idea and sheer naked feeling provoked by the score don't mesh here, especially as Janáček moves to a liberating anticipation of the great freedom not so much as hinted at on the screen. Scene from Royal Opera's From the House of the DeadAround this, though, the set-up and follow-through are impeccable on their own terms. A young black basketball player (Salim Sai) stands for the wounded prison eagle (as "The Eagle") which finds its wings at the end of the opera; the frantic mime-dance of his friend (Jordan Ajadi, pictured above right) actually suits a score which, though composed in the late 1920s, seems to want to break out into hip-hop and, in the Act 2 "shows" Beyoncé. A cast of singers, sounding wonderful from chorus through small roles to the big guns, meshes perfectly with the actors; no stagy gestures or superfluous over-acting here.

Usually familiar faces like Peter Hoare, John Graham-Hall, Nicky Spence and Graham Clark - as the Old Prisoner who gets perhaps the most touching line ('he had a mother too") - are transformed beyond recognition. The first monologue, effortlessly introduced, belongs to Štefan Margita's Luka Kuzmič - crystal clear of meaning, strong of voice, balanced at the other end of the opera by the connected narrative of Johan Reuter's equally compelling Šiškov about the abused but deeply loving Akulka, one of the many invisible tragic heroines of the drama (Margita and Reuter pictured below). Here, at last, there are pauses for reflection in the haunting wordless chorus and the warmer colours the composer brings to a tragic love-triangle. Stefan Margita and Johan Reuter in From the House of the DeadAkulka, in fact, is not quite invisible in this production; Allison Cook's Prostitute, the only woman in an otherwise all-male cast, uneasily takes on her role, just as an earlier village girl is portrayed by the feminine Tatar lad Aljeja - originally intended as a boy sung by a soprano but here, as in a baffling Prague production which actually deserved the boos inexplicably unleashed at the end of last night's performance, sung by a tenor, Pascal Charbonneau.

While a tender bond with homoerotic overtones is established between Alleja and Gorjančikov the political prisoner (Willard White, still in strong voice), women are traduced throughout, even if Janáček pours all his love into Akulka's music. The blow-up dolls of the Don Juan scene can be battered in grim fun, just as the murders of men who get in the way bring forth only red confetti. Warlikowski cleverly blurs the lines between acting and being before the two musical plays in the narrative of Skuratov (a striking Royal House debut from Czech tenor Ladislav Elgr, pictured below with Charbonneau).

Ladislav Elgr and Patrice Charbonneau in From the House of the DeadSound confusing? It could be, and sometimes we wonder where we are, but the wilful blurring of lines at high velocity is Janáček's, not Warlikowski's, and the recurrent themes the director manages to impose are always disciplined. Just as there are sparks of God in most of these beings - Warlikowski, who interestingly tells us he avoided re-reading Dostoyevsky in the cause of finding universality in the composer's lopsided shapes, prefers Genet's "gold in the mud" - so colour and movement fill Małgorzata Szczęśniak's malleable designs, the big sets equally pliantly lit by Felice Ross.

Like so much else in the short but relentlessly hard hitting evening, they elude easy description. Just go, and one thing's for sure: you should emerge feeling quite different from when you went in. Kafka's axiom that a work of art should be the "axe to the frozen ice within us" applies here not only to Janáček and Dostoyevsky, but also to Warlikowski and Wigglesworth. Despite those unfathomable boos, Warlikowski in his UK operatic debut lives up to the extraordinary standards of his Phaedra(s) with Isabelle Huppert. Like that dream/nightmare vision, this is not an experience that can be easily replicated.


I sat in a left balcony box last night. With so much of the narrative set way left on stage the production was pointless for at least 20% of the house. Perhaps the boos were for the complete disrespect to this section of the audience. Think on producers and indeed the ROH.

That did cross my mind, at any rate for the scenes in the prison governor's office in Act One. This has been a frequent plaint at the Royal Opera (remembering especially Christof Loy's Tristan). Directors do need to see the set from every part of the house, just as conductors need to get out there while an assistant works with the orchestra.

I was (thankfully) in the centre section of the amphitheatre and the boos I heard certainly all came from my left. A rather disappointing end to a dramatic evening well worth seeing.

Do you mean stage left (i.e. on the left as you're looking into the auditorium) or "auditorium left" (i.e. on the left if you're seated in the auditorium)? Just wondering as I have tickets for extreme stage left and wondering if I will suffer.

Best go to listen, read the surtitles if you have to and enjoy what you do see as well. Sometimes I only see half a production but hear it all. It is annoying that parts of the production can be hidden -I saw half a Lucia not so long ago, but close your eyes and listen rather than plan your boos!

Re Balcony Left; I had a similar experience for Wozzeck a couple of years ago, and left quite disappointed in the thoughtlessness of the direction. Last night we were way up in the Amphitheatre. There is a lot of mime-acting and it's an interesting concept, but I felt much of it was lost from that distance. It also detracted from paying attention to the singer. Maybe this is less of a problem if you're not reliant on the surtitles to understand what's going on, but I didn't know where I was supposed to be looking for much of the performance.

I haven’t yet seen the production, but having read this review and others, I imagine the booing might have been because this is not a production of Janacek’s opera (set in the Russian gulag with an eagle etc) but of someone else’s (set in contemporary America with a basketball player etc).

Just because Warlikowski finds contemporary relevance in it certainly doesn't mean it is 'not a production of Janacek's opera'. If you want to see one that truly isn't, you can watch the Prague production online. The third act is set in a concert hall with tuxedoed gents wearing green mouth-masks, a piano and a woman wearing only knickers being shoved around the stage (that bit, at least. I 'got'; the rest not). I even used a still of it for a 'name that opera' competition, and no-one guessed correctly over two days until I provided heavy clues (ie a counter-intuitive guess at Fidelio came close). Never rule a production out until you've seen it, please.

Dear sir, If U did not understand the 3 act of the Prague production, it doesn't mean, that It is not production of Janáček opera eather...It just means, that U have probably lack of imagination and fantasy! As U know, Aljeja is attacked at the very end of 2 act. The concept of last act in Prague was, that Aljeja is dying and it is much more of halucination. The concert hall was designed from the beginning (but dirty place where prisoners are working to clean it up), piano was the eagle and dancing woman was Akulka...Don't be so oldschool, realistic and literal, please!

Dear Mr Spinar: Could you help us with why, in your view, opera (or theatre) productions need a 'concept' at all? Why don't you just present a work in a way that is true to its author's intentions?

I haven’t expressed any view on the production, and obviously will not do so until I have seen it. But it’s a matter of fact, according to your review, that the opera was set in a modern American prison and that the eagle was a basketball player. Those facts, I have little doubt, would lead some people to boo the director. You said you couldn’t understand the booing. I think, if your review is accurate, the booing was entirely understandable and indeed predictable. Whether one agrees with the booers or not is an entirely different matter.

First, to the director of the Prague production - if I were 'old school' and 'literal', I wouldn't have praised Mr. Warlikowski's imaginatve approach. As to yours, you explain it very plausibly, but if the audience can't begin to work out the meaning - even ones who know the operatic literature - then chances are your idea didn't 'read'.One can be challenged and intuitively 'go' with something, but a stretch too far says more about the director than it does about the work. FWIW I found the direction tight - albeit too much showiness from the movement group - and was going with it, but you lost me and others in Act 3. As Strauss wrote to Hofmannsthal, the meaning must be inherent in the production itself, not in an idea that doesn't necessarily communicate.

To Mr O'Shea - in my opinion booing should NEVER happen; just withhold your applause if you disapprove. But in any case Janacek's opera is hardly a familiar classic where people expect to see any one thing. And his treatment - though not Dostoyevsky's, which is more specific - is universal and timeless. I don't suppose the people who booed were expecting a real eagle (troublesome in the Scottish Opera and WNO productions).

Mr Nice: As to booing, I disagree, but in your review you didn’t complain about it, you said you didn’t understand it. As to the rest, why will you not read what I say, instead of responding to criticisms I have not made?

What have I missed, Mr O'Shea?

An intelligent and accurate review at last in contrast to most of the other drivel written about the production in other places. Balcony boxes are restricted review seats which is why they're cheaper than central seats. I did find Willard White weak and found it difficult to hear him and I think the playing will get better 1st nights at ROH never seem quite ready. But great to see something by KW and his team in this country.

Though I haven't read other reviews yet I do think that critics need to take into account the difficulty, or rather the strangeness, of the work in the first place. What I do know is that I witnessed mastery in every field - work, staging, conducting, singing - and plenty of others have agreed with me.

I’ve sat in a balcony box frequently each season for many years. I am indeed aware it’s a slightly restricted view (front seats). However to set so much of the narrative to far left or right of the stage is a different ball game and thankfully not something I’ve experienced until now. Left side tickets for this production should read concert performance pointless watching.

As far as I could tell from a central seat, you would lose perhaps half of the first act and a bit of the last (maybe 20 minutes out of 90?), none of the middle. So caution necessary but it's not quite as bad as you suggest.

I'd like to defend Mr Špinar's Prague production referred to above. It was indeed confusing in parts, but since I saw it in May, 2016, I've thought about it often and rather fondly. In at least one aspect it was much much better that what we saw at the ROH last week. The central problem of the Warlikowski staging under review here was its failure properly to define the key relationship between Gorjancikov and Aljeja. Their initial bonding in Act 1 was barely visible, since it took place inside that awkwardly-designed prison-within-a-prison; and it was surely a grave mistake to have Willard White alone centre stage at the end of the act; Aljeja should be with him. By contrast, in Mr Špinar's staging, a moment of unsparing horror (Gorjančikov spitting out a cloud of blood as he staggered back onto the stage after the lashing) led into a moving conclusion to the act as he lashed out blindly at Aljeja while the boy persisted in his attempts to comfort him. Moreover, Warlikowski was rather coy with the homoerotic elements; Aljeja was in drag at the beginning of Act 2, but this might merely evoke the beautiful sister referred to in the libretto; and in any case, the implied equation of homosexuality with transvestism is problematic. Mr Špinar was much more explicit in signalling a gay relationship: the two men were discovered as the curtain rose in an embrace, before the boy hurriedly dressed as the other prisoners approached. The ribald sex play of the Don Juan pantomime seemed, in context, like a coded attack by its participants on the central relationship, and thereby offered a persuasive interpretation of the actʼs climactic assault on Aljeja. I agree that the Act 3 recital was a less successful experiment, but even there, the imagery (Gorjancikov sitting with his hand on Aljeja's shoulder as the boy performed at the concert) made sense interpreted in that light: Aljeja's dying fantasy is one of being supported and comforted by his lover. I should add that this isn't my preferred interpretation of the work itself; I tend to assume that Aljeja, being a naive Muslim boy from Dagestan, is probably unconscious that his feelings for Gorjancikov might have a sexual dimension and sublimates them into filial feeling. But in its own terms, Mr Špinar's treatment struck me as logical and intelligent. I'd rather see that production again than this one.

Good for you; what you say has considerable truth. I would still prefer to see Warlikowski's production again rather than this one because I felt that actors and singers were more integrated; Špinar's campy movement group got on my nerves. As I noted above, the Prague production was certainly - that apart - very disciplined work. Was it the first time, I wonder, that Aljeja was cast as a tenor rather than the soprano-en-travesti stipulated for the original?

It's meant to be a mezzo (not a soprano), but in any case, no, it wasn't the first time. Patrice Chéreau chose to cast a tenor (Erik Stoklossa) in his famous and admirable production, first seen at various European venues in 2007. His performance is captured for posterity in the DVD recording, made that year in Aix-en-Provence with Pierre Boulez in the pit. Stoklossa is very good and very touching - it's a real actor's performance. He has sung the role in most revivals of that staging since, most recently at Paris last autumn.

I'm finally about to see that. Mackerras has a very light soprano on his recording. No reason now why a treble shouldn't take on the role, is there? Though any homoeroticism would be out of the question in that case.

Well, I suppose casting a treble would be an experiment worth trying – it would cement Aljeja's status as a symbol of innocence, and his wounding would be more horrible if he was in fact a child. However, there are several strong counterarguments. Firstly, he presumably needs to be at least old enough to be convicted of a crime and sent to prison, though this is perhaps the weakest argument, since the age of criminal responsibility was no doubt younger at the time of composition let alone that of setting. Secondly and more to the point, Janacek was fairly faithful to the original book, and Dostoyevesky's Ali is “not more than twenty-two, and looked younger.” We're told that his brothers treat him as if he were a child (their affection for him was “paternal rather than fraternal”) and that he is unusually innocent (the narrator of the book marvels at how he has preserved his innocence in prison), but nevertheless, we're explicitly told that he's a young adult. Lastly and I think decisively, Janacek explicitly related the figure of Aljeja to the woman he loved, Kamila Stosslova: 'You are, in my new opera, under the name Aljeja: such a tender, sweet creature.” Since Stosslova was several decades younger than the composer, the age difference between Gorjancikov and Aljeja is suggestive; but obviously, in that case, Aljeja again needs to be old enough that eroticism would not be out of the question.

Then why the simulacrum of an unbroken voice? Curiouser and curiouser. I think, as Warlikowski has rightly pointed out, that Janacek takes what he wants from Dostoyevsky and ties it much less to time and place, which makes an update even more plausible. Anyway, the role of Yniold in Debussy's Pelleas is nearly always taken now by a treble, and is much more convincing as a result.

Well, Octavian in Rosenkavalier is also scored for a mezzo rather than a tenor, which obviously doesn't indicate that he's a child - only that he's considerably younger than his mature lover. In any case, Janacek, adapting a narrative with no female characters, may simply have valued the increased variety a major mezzo role would have brought to the opera's sound world. There is, of course, also the prostitute, but her role is extremely brief.

Pedants' corner: Octavian was actually written for a soprano, to follow in the footsteps of Mozart;s Cherubino, but both are mostly sung by mezzos these days. Of course the Prostitute here is a major part, acting-wise, in Warlikowski's production. Aljeja isn't a major part, singing-wise, compared to the four monologists, but it is important, yes. Essential, too, that there's no element of the artifice which requires a suspension of disbelief - or a frisson of lesbian love, as Britten seemed to think (and he found it repulsive) - in Rosenkavalier.

"Aljeja isn't a major part, singing-wise, compared to the four monologists, but it is important, yes." Actually what startled me, seeing the opera again at the ROH and a few months ago in the Welsh National Opera staging in Oxford, was how small a part Gorjancikov is in terms of the actual amount he has to sing. I'd always kind of thought of him as the protagonist. Gosh, what a strange and remarkable opera it is.

Agreed - it is unorthodox and bewildering in every respect, and yet the tension holds throughout in a performance as good as this one. Nicky Spence, who came to my Opera in Depth class on Monday to talk to the students (we're spending four afternoons on the work), said his mum was bewildered by what was going on but still loved every minute of it. I repeat myself in declaring that too few of those who have taken the Royal Opera show to task have considered the strangeness of the material. Dostoyevsky, too, writes about how incoherent the narratives of the prisoners are, and that's an essential part of the opera.

Many thanks, too, for sustaining a dialogue which I hope some readers have found as worthwhile as I have.

Absolutely. I saw it with my mum and stepdad who were similarly bewildered but still found it haunting and beautiful. My stepdad in particular said he wanted to see it again to sort out the parts he hadn't understood. I may buy him the Chereau DVD for his next birthday. And thanks for your final comment - indeed, it's been a thoroughly agreeable discussion! Wish I could attend your Opera in Depth class!

I saw it last night, sitting in the stalls circle left and heard no boos, on the contrary there was a lengthy ovation at the end. Sitting there we missed some of the staging but not as much as I was expecting from comments above. I thought the opera, production and performance were extraordinary. Go see it.

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