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<em>From the House of the Dead</em>, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
09 Mar 2018

The ROH's first production of From the House of the Dead

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production for the ROH of From the House of the Dead is ‘new’ in several regards. It’s (astonishingly) the first time that Janáček’s last opera has been staged at Covent Garden; it’s Warlikowski’s debut at Covent Garden; and the production uses a new 2017 critical edition prepared by John Tyrrell.

From the House of the Dead, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Production image

Photo credit: Clive Barda


‘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. It was the quasi-fictionalised account of Dostoevsky’s imprisonment, published predominantly in the journal Vremya between 1860-62, that was Janáček’s source for the libretto of From the House of the Dead. The composer selected characters and incidents - events that occurred in the prison hospital, the celebration of feast days - and assembled them into a mosaic punctuated by three extended narratives in which individuals recount the violent crimes and contexts that have resulted in their incarceration and suffering.

Warlikowski tells us that he ‘made a conscious decision not to re-read Dostoevsky’s novel’ wanting to keep at bay his youthful fascination with this text, and ‘focus more directly on Janáček’s adaptation of the novel, and use his score and libretto to create a world not specifically ‘Russian’, but more universal in feel.’

Nothing wrong with that: violence, (in)justice and freedom are universal concerns, and all human existence involves suffering in some form. But, the practical outcome might lead one to think that the opera had been based upon a text which read, ‘We lived together in a shabby recreation hall, playing basketball, lounging about in smart tracksuits, watching football on a plasma television screen. A prostitute was made readily available, and on public holidays we were treated to champagne and soft-porn entertainment.’ Warlikowski titles his programme article ‘A Journey into Hell’ but in fact these detainees seem to be having quite an indulgent - if not very salubrious - time.

Warlikowski and his designer Małgorzata Szczęśniak have replaced Dostoevsky’s Siberian gulag with a modern penitentiary. The open stage is vast and bare. Stage right is a glass office where the Prison Commander reads a newspaper, occasionally looking up to check the cctv surveillance monitor, as prisoners wander in and out to do business with the drug-dealing guards. The office swivels and, from my position in the Balcony, the glass frequently reflected conductor Mark Wigglesworth in the pit, weakening the realism, physical and psychological, that Janáček’s music so powerfully establishes.

production image Clive Barda.jpgPhoto credit: Clive Barda.

During the overture it becomes clear that when Warlikowski says he wants to make the opera ‘more universal’ what he actually means is more ‘ideological’. Projected onto the steel squares which form a bulwark of a stage curtain, a film of Michel Foucault critiquing the prison system unfolds. If the French philosopher’s words have power they don’t really have relevance here - Janáček and Dostoevsky were more interested in man’s potential if not for forgiveness then at least for understanding, than in the notion that the justice system only exists to justify the existence of the police.

Moreover, the video images distract from what we are hearing - an objective representation of social reality: that is, the clinking chains, whiplash sounds and screams, mechanical sounds and the drum rolls which break up the day as the opera proceeds. And, this is the principal problem with Warlikowski’s production: it doesn’t listen to what the music is saying and doesn’t respect the balance between realism and escapism that the score achieves, as Janáček’s bitter extremes of harmony, orchestration and tessitura suddenly surge with a lyrical beauty so intense that it is almost painful.

Willard W. White as Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov Photo by Clive Barda.jpgWillard W. White as Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Time after time I found myself distracted by the frenetic stage activity - such as the hyper-manic break-dancing of four black dancer-prisoners - which obscured significant events and overpowered the libretto’s moments of narrative focus and stillness. The arrival and humiliation of Petrovič at the start of Act 1, and his subsequent flogging, for example, almost passed me by, and this was not because Willard White was anything less than superb as he tried to maintain the ‘aristocratic’ prisoner’s human dignity. The prisoners may be indifferent to the beating Petrovič receives, as he stands for their own sufferings; but we are not, and it matters that his abusive treatment is pushed by Warlikowski to the margins, not least because the beating mirrors the violence in the tale which Luka is narrating - thus merging prison life with the world outside, as direct and reported intersect.

Pascal Charbonneau as Aljeja Clive Barda.jpg Pascal Charbonneau as Aljeja. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Moreover, Petrovič is central to the opera’s shifting energies: at the close, his freedom is emblematic, bound with both the release of the eagle that has been cruelly baited by the prisoners and with the sadness of separation felt by Aljeja, who is losing a friend - but also indicative of renewal.

But, Warlikowski is not much interested in such renewal, or in the eagle, though the latter’s instinct for freedom is associated with Dostoevsky’s definition of the psychological motive behind crime as a burst of free will, thus blending freedom and captivity in a single motif. Here, ‘The Eagle’ is the name of a black basketball player who may or may not lob the ball through the hoop in the final moments of the opera.

This opera is not concerned with philosophical speculations about justice and the police force but with human motivations, acts and humanity’s desire for freedom - as expressed in the three main solo narrations. One could not fault the performances of Štefan Margita as Luka Kuzmič or Ladislav Elgr as Skuratov. But, the energy with which their strong, unflinching tales of violence begetting violence should surge was blunted by the onstage busyness, and in Skuratov’s case by another pre-Act projection, this time of the real-life reflections of a prisoner on death row: truly distressing but, in this context, also diverting. For Skuratov’s narration should hint at the outside world, the freedom of the limitless steppes, releasing the tension and admitting romance and heterosexual love into the prison as it is listened to by the fascinated prisoners. And, Warlikowski once again added unnecessary action - in this case, a mime by Pascal Charbonneau’s Aljeja, to the tale.

Štefan Margita as Luka Kuzmič, Allison Cook as Prostitute, Johan Reuter as Šiškov, Alexander Kravets as Čerevin .jpg Štefan Margita as Luka Kuzmič, Allison Cook as Prostitute, Johan Reuter as Šiškov, Alexander Kravets as Čerevin. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

Similarly, the festive atmosphere of the following Easter celebrations further heightens the emotion and evokes freedom. Warlikowski took the ironic parallels which the festive entertainments offer to the tragic drama of sexual love to extremes, however, as the men resorted to battering and abusing inflatable dolls in a soft-porn extravaganza fuelled by champagne.

Johan Reuter as Šiškov .jpg Johan Reuter as Šiškov. Photo credit: Clive Barda.

We had to wait until Act 3 for the feverish intensity to find a focus, in Šiškov’s terrible narrative about the tragic mistreatment of Akulka. Wanton and worthless, despised by his fellow prisoner he may be, but Johan Reuter’s warm and commanding delivery made Šiškov’s narrative utterly compelling, as the orchestral music, punctuated by the moans of pain of the patients in the hospital prison, invited our sympathy. But, even here, Warlikowski could not quite trust the score, and Allison Cook’s Prostitute was called upon to mime the narrative - yet another needless intrusion.

The entire cast sang and acted with captivating conviction: the sufferings and sorrows, flaws and failings of Nicky Spence’s Nikita, Grant Doyle’s Čekunov, Graham Clark’s Antonič, and the prisoners enacted by Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Peter Hoare, Aleš Jenis, Florian Hoffmann, Alexander Kravets and John Graham-Hall were all brought affectingly to life. Wigglesworth delineated the score’s tensions and jagged edges with precision but did not always allow the moments of lyrical release to surge with warmth.

For this listener, the opera’s real power lies in the moments when the prisoners’ bitter alienation from the ‘real’ world is overcome, when outside world and prison converge, such as when Šiškov recognises and attacks Luka at the close and is reminded by the old prisoner that ‘He was born of a mother too’, sobbing as he makes the sign of the cross over Luka’s corpse, ‘There are bright moments in house of the dead.’ Such moments affirm the value of humanity and the purpose of existence, even amongst the lowest fallen.

As the score’s inscription states, in every creature there is a spark of God. Warlikowski’s production fails to embody this small optimism which is ever present in both the free and the captured.

Claire Seymour

Leoš Janáček: From the House of the Dead

Alexandr Gorjancikov - Willard W. White, Aljeja - Pascal Charbonneau, Luka Kuzmič - Štefan Margita, Skuratov - Ladislav Elgr, Šiškov/Priest - Johan Reuter, Prison Governor - Alexander Vassiliev, Big Prisoner/Nikita - Nicky Spence, Small Prisoner/Cook - Grant Doyle, Elderly Prisoner - Graham Clark, Voice - Konu Kim, Drunk Prisoner - Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Šapkin - Peter Hoare, Prisoner/Kedril - John Graham-Hall, Prisoner/Don Juan/Brahmin - Aleš Jenis, Young Prisoner - Florian Hoffmann, Prostitute - Allison Cook, Čerevin - Alexander Kravets, Guard - Andrew O'Connor; Director - Krzysztof Warlikowski, Conductor - Mark Wigglesworth Designer - Małgorzata Szczęśniak, Lighting designer - Felice Ross, Video designer - Denis Guéguin, Movement director - Claude Bardouil, Dramaturg - Christian Longchamp, Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Wednesday 7th March 2018.

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