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<em>Russian Revolution</em> series, Welsh National Opera at the Birmingham Hippodrome
04 Nov 2017

WNO's Russian Revolution series: the grim repetitions of the house of the dead

‘We lived in a heap together in one barrack. The flooring was rotten and an inch deep in filth, so that we slipped and fell. When wood was put into the stove no heat came out, only a terrible smell that lasted through the winter.’ So wrote Dostoevsky, in a letter to his brother, about his experiences in the Siberian prison camp at Omsk where he was incarcerated between 1850-54, because of his association with a group of political dissidents who had tried to assassinate the Tsar. Dostoevsky’s ‘house of the dead’ is harrowingly reproduced by Maria Björsen’s set - a dark, Dantesque pit from which there is no possibility of escape - for David Pountney’s 1982 production of Janáček’s final opera, here revived as part of Welsh National Opera’s Russian Revolution series.

Russian Revolution series, Welsh National Opera at the Birmingham Hippodrome

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Cast of From the House of the Dead

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 

Janáček assembled the libretto for From the House of the Dead from Dosteovesky’s ‘memoirs’ which were loosely disguised in quasi-fictional form and published, predominantly in the journal Vremya, between 1860-62. The composer selected characters and incidents from the author’s accounts of ceaseless suffering, as well as incidents that occurred in the prison hospital and on feast days. Each of the opera’s three acts, which proceed without pause, focuses on an individual narrative of the violent crimes, real and sometimes imagined, which have led to incarceration. The successive narrations of aggression, brutality and murder become increasingly dreadful and distressing.

There is no development of character, but as Pountney so powerfully and disturbingly confirms, Janáček creates incredibly probing psychological studies. And, although individuals - the Tall Prisoner, the Short Prisoner - emerge from and are re-subsumed into the mass of iniquity, within the seemingly abstract design in which prisoners aimlessly intermingle there is a huge range of emotions amid which an elusive but indestructible hint of humanity survives. It is surely this combination of abjection and compassion which attracted Janáček - who inscribed his score, ‘In every creature a spark of God’ - to Dostoevsky’s recollections. Just as the latter aims for objectivity in presenting the extremes to which man may be driven in order to survive, as violence begets violence, so the composer does not aim to explain, condemn or absolve. The words of Carl Dahlhaus seem apposite: ‘In contrast to Wagner, who keeps up the running commentary on the unfolding drama, Janáček is not present in his own person, or discoursing in his own words; he is more like an observer, standing back unnoticed behind what he has to show us, which reveals itself in its own terms.’

Janacek Cast 2 Barda.jpg Cast of From the House of the Dead. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

From the House of the Dead is all the more unsettling for Janáček’s unflinching realism. And, this realism most forcefully resides in the astonishingly unconventional orchestral score which Czech conductor Tomáš Hanus brought to life with searing precision and incisiveness. WNO are performing the new critical edition prepared by esteemed Janáček scholar John Tyrrell; heard here for the first time, this authoritative edition further revises the ‘provisional’ edition based upon the 1928 copyists’ score (which includes some of the composer’s revisions) which Tyrrell had prepared with Charles Mackerras for the 1980 Decca recording of the opera. Additions and instrumental doublings, along with the ‘ironing out’ of the composer’s ‘idiosyncrasies’, which had been imposed by Janáček’s pupils, Břetislav Bakala and Osvald Chlubna (who had believed the chamber-like autograph score to be unfinished), have been pared away.

Hanus relished the instrumental extremes, creating a unalleviated tension between bass and the soaring upper lines, and highlighting the stark juxtapositions of colour - riotous brass, blazing trumpets, squealing violins, and poignant oboe - and register - a low tuba growling beneath stratospheric piccolo yelps - which characterise the instrumental writing. The conductor achieved a wonderful transparency through which every edgy motivic gesture, melodic snatch and rhythmic twitch was laid bare. The mosaic-like structure of the score in which textures and musical ideas seem almost randomly to intersect and interrupt evoked the grim, grinding repetitions of prison life. The overture, with its clanking chains, whiplash mimicry and high screaming violins, was an alarmingly blunt exposure to the disturbing immediacy of the events which would unfold. The opening march was intense: the subdued horns rumbled forebodingly as the side drum rolled out the signals which break up each monotonous day and evoke the oppressive military force which overpowers all.

The perpetual tension never lessens: antagonism outweighs collective experience as the prisoners constantly provoke and torment each other, even arguing about the type of bird that they have captured and confined to a cage. The aggressive rituals roll on and round, but at times individuals are picked out for harassment, Chris Ellis’s lighting (realised on tour by Benjamin Naylor) brilliantly isolating individuals within the hellish gloom. And, the arrival of the aristocrat, Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov (the narrator of Dostoevsky’s novel), imprisoned for political crimes, instigates a dreadful rattling of the prisoners’ chains. Dostoevsky had remarked, ‘They hated the upper classes to a fantastic extent. They were extremely hostile and rejoiced at our sorrow. They would have killed us had they been given a chance. They never stopped persecuting us, for it gave them pleasure, distracted them - it was an occupation’. Indeed, Ben McAteer’s clean tenor and raised position on stage did seem to isolate him from the other prisoners, but when at the end of Act 1 Petrovich was dragged away to be beaten, Mark Le Brocq’s Luka Kuzmich’s account of his own similar punishment caused the men - and us - to flinch with every audible crack of the whip. The silencing of the prisoners’ voices at this point spoke painfully of their anguish.

mark_le_brocq_luka_kuzmich._photo_credit_clive_barda_0101.jpg Mark Le Brocq (Luka). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Luka is the first to recount his narrative of naked violence, and as he told of his murder of a guard at another prison, Le Brocq’s tenor was a formidable force against the abrupt and angular instrumental lines. Alan Oke’s Skuratov is an unhinged presence during Luka’s account, wrapping the chains which manacle his hands over his head as if to inflict further pain upon himself. In Act 2, Skuratov tells his own heart-rending tale about a woman, Luisa, loved and lost, and her Old German husband, whom he murdered. The contrast between genuine love and a rejoicing in murderous vengeance breaks out into a folk-song which balances precariously between a reminder of the ‘real world’ beyond the prison and a descent into lunacy. Oke skilfully evoked the different voices of the personnel of his grim chronicle, momentarily transporting us to the wider world.

It is Shishkov’s horrifically gripping narration in Act 3, however, that descends to seemingly unredeemable depths of psychological anguish. Simon Bailey was a commanding presence, emerging from the obscurity where he had lingered up until this point to recount his story of loyalty and betrayal. Bailey’s bass-baritone grew more intense and compelling through his 20-minute confession. He had married Akulina, despite Filka’s declaration that he had taken Akulina’s virginity, but upon learning that Filka was indeed the man she truly loved, he had slashed Akulina’s throat.

alan_oke_skuratov._photo_credit_clive_barda_0066.jpg Alan Oke (Skuratov). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Amid such desolation, Janáček does offer tentative glimmers of brightness. The role of the young Alyeya is cast for mezzo soprano (though sometimes taken by high tenor) and Paula Greenwood’s shining tone, her voice redolent with emotion as Alyeya sings of her sister and mother, sailed above the prisoners’ sunken spirits - although such moments of human warmth can make the resumption of prison life (the noise of the convicts at work interrupts and smothers Alyeya’s recollections) even more despairing. Then, there is the wounded, caged eagle which the prisoners cruelly prod - to torment or keep alive? - but which, a ‘Tsar of the forests’, recovers and is released, a parallel to Petrovich’s new-found freedom. WNO’s representation of this symbolic emancipation was not entirely successful, the somewhat clumsy puppet of Act 1 replaced by projections for the final release - a perfectly acceptable approach in theory, but a little unpolished in execution.

The exaggerated gestures and flashes of colour which characterise Pountney’s presentation of the two pantomimes which mark the Easter festivities at the end of Act 2, emphasise the way the dramatic narratives of ‘Kedril and Don Juan’ and ‘The Miller’s Beautiful Wife’ parallel the prisoners’ destructive experiences of sexual love. The performances offer relief from the regimentation but also aggravate the underlying tensions, emphasising the absence of women in the prison - excepting the women who accompany the priest who offers an Easter blessing and the prostitute who plies her trade - and the prisoners’ own failures.

l-r_paul_charles_clark_laurence_cole_julian_close_and_adrian_thompson._photo_credit_clive_barda_0253.jpgPaul Charles Clark, Laurence Cole, Julian Close, Adrian Thompson. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

The production also confirms the compassion and consolation that is to be found amid such degeneracy and despair. Robert Hayward’s Commandment, previously so brutishly angered by Petrovich’s dignity, was almost lost for words when he asked Petrovich for forgiveness for his unjust treatment. Peter Wilman’s Old Convict rose with surprising fortitude and presence to affirm his reconciliation to camp life: after Shishkov has attacked Luka (whom he has recognised as the treacherous Filka), the old man calmly declared, ‘He was born of a mother too’, though the prisoners’ struggle to comprehend what it means that ‘a human being has died’.

In his last opera, Janáček eschews the climactic apotheoses and melodrama with which some of his earlier operas close - and the sort of romantic transfiguration of the kind that, depicting a similar context, Franco Alfano indulges in the final scenes of Risurrezione which I recently saw at the Wexford Festival . Pountney closes with the savage stamping of the concluding march dissolving into the darkness. The oppression is overwhelming, the routine will continue, unchanged: the realism of K át’a Kabanová pushed to its extreme.

Janáček wrote of his ‘black opera’ to Kamila Stösslova: ‘It seems to me that I am gradually descending lower and lower, right to the depths of the most wretched people of humanity. And it is hard going.’ Watching From the House of the Dead can give rise to similar dejection and disorientation. But, the warmth of the lyrical exchanges between Alyeya and Petrovich at the close bring both hope and frustration: the latter’s freedom entails separation. Perhaps for the first time we feel empathy.

Previous WNO tours have seen Tomáš Hanus at the helm for performances of John Copley’s 2011 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, but on this occasion the task fell to James Southall who ensured that the bubbles did not go flat. The opening chords popped like exploding champagne corks, kick-starting a scintillating overture which set the tone for the entire orchestral performance - one characterised by lightness and grace, rhythmic zest, string playing which sparkled and then swooned, woodwind by turns silky then razor-sharp, and spot-on tuning. Swift tempos kept self-indulgence at bay - Southall didn’t over-egg the rubatos in the waltz - and vivaciousness ruled the day.

die_fledermaus_-_wno_company_photo_credit_bill_cooper_1174.jpg Cast of Die Fledermaus. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Strauss’s belle époque frivolity seemed a rather odd companion for the three Slavic dramas of the Russian Revolution triptych. And, while it is a hangover from the company’s Vienna Vice season, there’s not much degeneracy or danger to be found in Copley’s Viennese merriment despite the fact that the criminal justice system lies at the heart of the drama of mistaken arrest, prison avoidance and voluntary incarceration. But, given the lessons learned when Christopher Alden looked for some darkness amid the bats and ballrooms at ENO in 2013, that’s no bad thing. And, it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser/audience-puller, offering some sunshine should the clouds of Slavic gloom seem like heavy weather. Moreover, with Strauss’s Viennese high society on the cusp of financial destabilisation and members of the government being carted off to gaol for debauchery and corruption, one doesn’t have to look too deeply to find some telling contemporary parallels which add a delicate satirical frisson to the light-weight comedy. The only difference is, perhaps, that nowadays we are less likely to be surprised by the shocking behaviour of the wealthy and the ruling classes.

Tim Reed’s elegant set gives no hint of imminent economic panic and depression, however; in contrast, the graceful balustrades of the spiral staircase which rise from the art nouveau tastefulness of the Eisensteins’ drawing-room to the airy terrace balcony above seem an aptly elegant metaphor for the social and financial ladder that the would-be elite are rapaciously ascending.

steve_speirs_frosch_photo_credit_bill_cooper_0778.jpg Steve Speirs (Frosch). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

The comic capers spin with a light touch, arising naturally from the musical esprit, although the compulsion of Paul Charles Clarke’s Alfred to burst into song - not just in his gaol cell, but also off-stage before the show begins, and whenever the dialogue pauses for breath - is a bit wearing, despite the tenor’s bright ring. Rossini, Verdi, Puccini all get a look in, the latter somewhat anachronistically as Rosalind is drawn into a ‘Nessum Dorma’ duet; and Alfredo, having taken Tosca a little too much to heart, flings himself from the terrace balcony, only to bounce back up again. In Act 3, the drama is momentarily put on hold by the arrival of Steve Speirs’ Frosch, whose Tommy Cooper meets Macbeth’s Porter pièce de résistance was followed by Colonel Frank’s inebriated ineptitude, ably delivered by James Cleverton whose distorted vision we shared via some slippery coat-hook sliding and the over-active agility of the Wilhelm I’s portrait’s florid moustache. It was quite a relief when Adele (Rhian Lois) reappeared, confessing that she had been the Eisensteins’ maid, and the music was restored to centre-stage.

rhian_lois_adele_photo_credit_bill_cooper_0540.jpg Rhian Lois (Adele). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

The cast are uniformly attuned to the spirit of Copley’s production. Judith Howard is a lively Rosalinde, only too aware of her husband’s short-comings and dalliances. She slipped into a juicy cod-Hungarian accent for her Csárdás and the high notes were similarly plump. At ENO in 2013, Rhian Lois’s Adele was a welcome light amid the prevailing Freudian shadows, and here she was similarly vibrant, delivering a particularly glittering ‘Laughing Song’: Lois has obviously got the role as securely under her belt as Adele has her wily ‘betters’ under her thumb. I was impressed by Anna Harvey’s Prince Orlovsky, who for once was not mired in misanthropic melancholy but merely seemed to wish for some properly disinhibited partying. The challenging range and leaps of ‘Ich lade gern mir Gäste ein’ (I love to invite my friends) were negotiated with the same ease that saw Orlovsky throw back the vodka shots and toss the tumblers over his shoulder.

mark_stone_eisenstein_ben_mcateer_falke_photo_credit_bill_cooper_0058.jpg Mark Stone (Eisenstein) and Ben McAteer (Falke). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Mark Stein’s Eisenstein was more harmless charmer than crooked cad. Stone makes it all look and sound easy, but fashioning such musical charisma and deft comic judgment takes hard work. Such is this Eisenstein’s hapless inefficacy and vocal allure that one feels one would forgive him any indiscretion. He’s even fairly patient with his incompetent lawyer, Dr Blind (Joe Roche) and forgiving of Ben McAteer’s cruelly vengeful Dr Falke. The slick couplets and adroit internal rhymes of David Pountney and Leonard Hancock’s witty translation were clearly enunciated by all - I rarely needed to glance at the surtitles.

Some of the choral numbers could do with a shot of Orlovsky’s vodka. The WNO Chorus spin and swirl gracefully through the decorative arches of the ballroom, but while their gowns dazzle and glint under Howard Harrison’s purple-tinged light, the dancing is on the sedate side. Hardly the wild nights for which the Prince longs. But, while Strauss’s sachertorte may be a little too saccharine at times, the revenge of the bat, silhouetted against the gleaming moon in the closing tableau, provides some beguiling magic.

The WNO autumn tour continues until 2nd December in Liverpool, Bristol and Oxford.

Claire Seymour

Johann Strauss II: Die Fledermaus

Alfred - Paul Charles Clarke, Adele - Rhian Lois, Rosalinde - Judith Howard, Gabriel von Eisenstein - Mark Stone, Dr Blind - Joe Roche, Dr Falke - Ben McAteer, Colonel Frank - James Cleverton, Prince Orlovsky - Anna Harvey, Orlovsky’s servant - George Newton-Fitzgerald, Ida - Angharad Morgan, Frosch - Steve Speirs; director - John Copley, conductor - James Southall, revival director - Sarah Crisp, designer - Tim Reed, lighting designer - Howard Harrison, costume designer - Deirdre Clancy, choreographer - Stuart Hopps, WNO Orchestra and Chorus.

Birmingham Hippodrome; Wednesday 1st November 2017.

Janáček: From the House of the Dead

Goryanchikov - Ben McAteer, Alyeya - Paul Greenwood, Luka Kuzmich/Filka Morozov - Mark Le Brocq, Big Convict - Paul Charles Clarke, Small Convict - Quentin Hayes, Commandment - Robert Hayward, Old Convict - Peter Wilman, Skuratov - Alan Oke, Drunken Convict - Michael Clifton-Thompson, Chekunov/The Priest - Alastair Moore, The Cook - Laurence Cole, The Smith - Martin Lloyd, Young Convict - Adam Music, A Whore - Sarah Pope, Kedril - Simon Crosby Buttle, Shapkin - Adrian Thompson, Shishkov - Simon Bailey, Cherevin/Off-stage Voice - Gareth Dafydd-Morris, Don Juan - Julian Close, A Guard - Joe Roche, Four Actors - Matthew Batte, Nick Hywell, James Rockey, Dafydd Weeks. Female Child - Lillyella-Mai Robertson/Iona Roderick; director - David Pountney, conductor - Tomáš Hanus, designer - Maria Björson, lighting designer - Chris Ellis, lighting realied on tour - Benjamin Naylor, WNO Orchestra.

Birmingham Hippodrome; Thursday 2nd November 2017.

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