sat 25/05/2024

From the House of the Dead, Welsh National Opera review - elderly staging, music comes up fresh | reviews, news & interviews

From the House of the Dead, Welsh National Opera review - elderly staging, music comes up fresh

From the House of the Dead, Welsh National Opera review - elderly staging, music comes up fresh

Janáček's searing Siberian portrait musically gripping if dramatically antiquated

The prison camp: eagles or chickens?Clive Barda

This week is Prison Week in the Christian Churches, and it would be nice, if fanciful, to think that WNO programmed their revival of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead with that in mind.

More likely the thinking was that it fitted well enough into their Russian Revolution celebration, in view of its Russian source (Dostoyevsky) and setting (a Siberian prison camp), though one might have hoped that, among this bevy of autumn revivals (Khovanshchina and Eugene Onegin are both also old productions) some room - and funding - might have been found for an actual post-Revolution opera, as broadly defined as might be necessary.

David Pountney’s production of Janáček’s last opera is now thirty-five years old, and it shows its age. The late Maria Björnson’s single complicated set (the work is done in one act with minimal breaks) was brilliantly conceived in 1982 as an engine for what is essentially an ensemble piece played out in an inherently confined space, but it imposes a certain style of realistic stage action that now looks dated and, however expertly stage managed (by Caroline Clegg), frankly a bit wooden. 

He captured in precise sounds the unremitting agony of these men

The composer’s curious dramaturgy, in which plot boils down to a series of prisoners’ stories about the crimes that brought them here in the first place, seems to need more space, more depth of movement, perhaps less furniture. I had an odd sense, throughout this performance, of being in some kind of production museum, like the one Elijah Moshinsky deliberately created when he staged Cavalleria rusticana in forties style for WNO’s fiftieth anniversary. And the play-within-a-play, the prisoners’ Easter treat, creaks as such things tend to do when they neither contribute to the plot nor raise much of a laugh in their own right.

Having moaned my moan, I can compensate (I hope) by praising the musical side of things, which is if anything stronger than I remember it from all those years ago. Janáček may have thrown himself on our mercy with a questionable scenario, but musically he attacked the subject with a daredevilry that makes this score a masterclass in how to break every known rule of texture, harmony and orchestral balance while maintaining a clear mental image of what kind of music might express the horror and disrupted emotion of brutal incarceration with no hope of release.

How could he get away with those dangerous combinations of brass and reduced strings, those weird, thin spacings of high and low with nothing in the middle, those poisonous chordings that constantly question the truth of the loving thoughts that keep floating in on the melody? He never heard the work played, yet he captured in precise sounds the ongoing, unremitting agony of these men: criminals, yes (the tales are tales of murder), but creatures of passion and regret, objects of loathing and pity. Tomáš Hanus, himself Czech and conducting from John Tyrrell’s cleaned-up new edition, obviously has an instinctive grasp of these parameters, and directs a powerful, uninhibited reading that makes no attempt to sand down the rough edges or soften the aural blows, and the orchestra’s playing is quite simply superb.

The cast has no apparent weakness that can’t, in the end, be put down to something inherent in the work or the production. Simon Bailey sustains Shishkov’s rambling Act 3 narrative well without perhaps quite catching all its grotesquerie; Mark Le Brocq (pictured above) hurls out Luka’s account of his vicious murder of a prison officer with a ferocity that profits (even in Pountney’s English translation) from the psychological precision of Janáček’s word-setting. And there are fine vignettes from Alan Oke as Skuratov, who shot his lover’s bridegroom at their wedding, from Paula Greenwood as the boy Alyeya (whose crime we never learn), from Adrian Thompson as Shapkin, whose ears were almost pulled off by a magistrate, and from several others too numerous to list.

The chorus, a compendium of solo and ensemble, all male, are at their usual high level. But the lame eagle of the old production has been pensioned off in favour of a back projection and what looks like a mechanical chicken in a cage. As usual, machines destroying jobs. Or is it health and safety and animal rights, Siberian style?


In a pre-performance talk, we were informed that the chosen eagle had apparently popped its clogs some weeks before, and it didn't have an understudy. So, projection was used instead, but sat in the Upper Circle, I couldn't see it projected. Must have been a Norwiegan Blue - they stun easily.

What's more it was late arriving for the second performance, so no projection at all till the third act. Are Norwegian Blue's unpunctual as well?

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