Friday 9 March 2018

Hard hitting, yet transcendent: Janacek's From the House of the Dead

Janacek: From the House of the Dead - Salim Sai, Jamal Renaldo, Jordan Ajadi, (C) ROH. Photo by Clive Barda
Janacek: From the House of the Dead - Salim Sai, Jamal Renaldo, Jordan Ajadi,
(C) ROH. Photo by Clive Barda
Janacek From the House of the Dead; dir: Krzysztof Warlikowski, cond: Mark Wigglesworth; Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 Mar 2018 Star rating: 4.0
Warlikowski's modern production inspires some superb music making

Janacek: From the House of the Dead - Ladislav Elgr, Pascal Charbonneau - (C) ROH. Photo by Clive Barda
Ladislav Elgr, Pascal Charbonneau
(C) ROH. Photo by Clive Barda
The performance of Janacek's From the House of the Dead at Covent Garden on 7 March 2018 represented a number of firsts; the first performance of this opera by the Royal Opera, the debut of Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski, and the first performance of John Tyrrell's new critical edition of the opera.

Warlikowski, working with designer Malgorzata Szczesniak, lighting designer Felice Ross, video designer Denis Gueguin, movement director Claude Bardouil and dramaturg Christian Longchamp, directed the new production featuring a strong ensemble cast with Mark Wigglesworth conducting. Warlikowski set out to present the opera without the Dostoevsky Russian background. This was a modern setting, very reminiscent of an American prison, yet Warlikowski intercut the overture and entractes with interviews from films, Michel Foucault: la justice e la police, Michel Foucault et les juges and Teboho Edkins' Gangster Backstage.

This approach was signalled from there start, there was no eagle, instead, we had a black basketball player (in fact three dancers played a significant movement role in the production), a symbol of the idea of freedom in confinement. Injured in a fight, at the end of the opera he is able to play again.

The opera is very much an ensemble piece, characters come out of the chorus tell their story and return back to the ensemble. Warlikowski's approach was to emphasise this, there was a wide range of movement and activity; no chain gangs here, just the dull oppressive and native violence of prison life. For many of the dialogues and exchanges, Warlikowski did not spotlight the individual soloists, exchanges happened naturally. This might have worked in a smaller theatre, but from the fifth row of the Amphitheatre, it was often difficult to tell who was singing what. Instead, we got an impression of communal distress and activity. The three main narratives stood out, Stefan Margita and Ladislav Elgr as Luka and Skuratov, and notable Johann Reuter who was mesmerisingly riveting with Siskov's tale.

The other roles were strongly cast. Willard W. White was a powerful presence as  Alexandr Petrovic Gorjancikov, political prisoner taking on an interesting new meaning here, and his relationship with Aljeja (played by tenor Pascal Charbonneau rather than a mezzo-soprano) was unexpectedly tender, with Aljeja spending a lot of time in women's clothing. Nicky Spence was irrepressible as Nikita (and Big Prisoner), a significant physical presence amongst a strong cast of individual characters including Grant Doyle, Graham Clark, Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, Peter Hoare, Ales Jenis, John Graham Hall, Florian Hoffman, Allison Cook, and Alexander Kravets, plus Alexander Vassiliev as the prison governor and Andrew O'Connor as the guard.

I found the 'plays' a bit confusing and there seemed to rather too many regie-theater tropes such as the use of masks, blow-up dolls and men dressing as women. In fact, throughout the production the role of women is to be treated poorly, Allison Cook's prostitute is taken for granted and abused, and women are similarly at the receiving end in many of the stories the prisoners tell. Here we get them acted out so that Allison Cook and Pascal Charbonneau take the places of the characters. And even the blow up dolls seem to indicate the rather basic view the men take of women.

The role of the chorus is a big one, but what struck me was not so much how well the chorus sang which was superbly) but the sense that rather than soloists and chorus, this was a superbly integrated dramatic ensemble.

Szczesniak's set seemed, at first, forbidding with its huge sports hall but the use of a drop curtain and a mobile 'office' space, in fact, created a series of flexible spaces.

John Tyrrell's critical edition of the score has been a long time in the making. Rafael Kubelik first performed Janacek's original ending in the 1950s and Tyrrell worked on the edition used for Charles Mackerras' recording in the 1980s. We now have the final view of Janacek's own final thoughts (as opposed to the creative interventions of his pupils). The result is wonderful with Mark Wigglesworth bringing out a really luminous quality in the music. Whilst the protagonists might all be rough and violent, it is the richly textured orchestral score which brings the spark of humanity

Janacek: From the House of the Dead - Willard W. White - (C) ROH. Photo by Clive Barda
Warlikowski's intention was to make the opera more international, but by removing the Russian setting and going for something else specific rather than abstraction, you felt the production's solutions might be a little too specific and too reductive. I did not see the recent revival of David Pountney's production with Welsh National Opera but would be interested to hear comparisons between the two. Janacek's final opera is a dark piece, and much of the strangeness of the piece comes from Janacek and the way he has created the text and the music, Warlikowski never shirked the darkness, creating a rather intense, hard-hitting evening.

Overall, in terms of dramaturgy, I felt that were far too much going on, the stage often too distractingly busy.  But whatever doubts I might have about the production, there is no doubt about the outstanding musical quality of the performance. If cannot go an see it then make sure you hear the BBC broadcast. And it would be nice to think that this might be captured for posterity.

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

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  • Beyond an auspicious debut: I chat to French Horn player Ben Goldscheider - interview
  • A return to the world of sleep and dreams: Robert Carsen's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream  (★★★½) - opera review
  • The complete piano works of John McCabe - volume 1 (★★★½) - CD review
  • Handelian celebration with the Foundling Hospital Anthem  (★★★½) - concert review
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  • Well worth crossing the Red Sea for: Rossini's Mosè in Egitto from Chelsea Opera Group (★★★★½) - opera review
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  • A varied career: our interview with violinist Thomas Gould finds him in a thoughtful mood - interview
  • Má vlast: Jiri Belohlavek's last recording with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra - CD review (★★★★)
  • Notable recital debut disc from French Horn player Ben Golscheider - Cd review (★★★★)
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