From the House of the Dead, Welsh National Opera, WNO, Cardiff, October 2017Posted on 9 October 2017
Hugely powerful and strangely life affirming. Janáček’s opera on Dostoyevsky’s novel about convicts in a Siberian prison camp might seem unpromising material, but the composer was a master at turning stories into dramatic masterpieces and this — his final opera — is extraordinary.
Composed on hand written staves that did not always extend to a whole page, his publishers felt it was an unfinished work and two of his students were assigned to complete it, which they did by adding instrumentation and even changing the ending. Wiser heads ignored the altered ending, but concern remained about Janáček’s original instrumentation, and this first performance of a newly recovered version by Professor John Tyrrell — who once studied in Janáček’s hometown of Brno — resonates with huge eloquence and dramatic intensity under the baton of WNO’s terrific new music director Tomáš Hanus.
David Pountney’s staging, a joint venture with Scottish Opera, saw its first outing in 1982, and has evidently aged extremely well. Designs by Maria Björnson capture the dull Nibelung-like quality of a Siberian prison camp, and Chris Ellis’s lighting conveys amazing contrasts that illustrate the composer’s inscription on the title page of his score, V každém tvoru jiskra boží (in every creature a spark of god).
These prisoners, mostly in penal servitude for serious crimes, argue with one another and tell their stories, none better than Mark Le Brocq as Luka Kuzmich. In death near the end he is finally recognised by another prisoner, Shishkov (Simon Bailey) who killed the girl who loved him. Life and death are intertwined in these stories, and there are lovely vignettes, such as the song early on by Skuratov (Alan Oke), and the contemplative interaction between the political prisoner Goryanchikov (Ben McAteer) and the Tatar boy Alyeya (Paula Greenwood). There is even a staging of two plays by the prisoners in the springtime of Act II.
Dostoyevsky’s setting of penal servitude remains in the background throughout and even after the music ends, David Pountney’s superb production lets us still see the heavy tread of prisoners in chains, but this is a life affirming experience. Under the baton of Tomáš Hanus, Janáček’s hugely expressive music brings out the spark of divinity that drives all human life. Shortly before the ending, the commandant (Robert Hayward) has been ordered to release the political prisoner, and as the music draws to a conclusion, the eagle — the bird the prisoners nurse back to life — flies to freedom. Utterly magical.
Singing is in English, a wise choice so that with the excellent diction we can understand while barely needing surtitles. Definitely not to be missed, with performances continuing at: Cardiff, 12 Oct; Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, 20 Oct; Venue Cymru, Llandudno, 26 Oct; Birmingham Hippodrome, 2 Nov; The Bristol Hippodrome, 16 Nov; New Theatre Oxford, 29 Nov — for details click here.