From the House of the Dead, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, March 2018Posted on 8 March 2018
Is the Royal Opera losing the plot? The recent staging of Carmen included narrative not in the libretto, and was very badly received. Now they have done it again.
Janáček’s final opera on Dostoyevsky’s novel about convicts in a Siberian prison camp is a marvellous work. The composer was a genius at reworking theatrical and literary material into an opera libretto, and creating music that brings the story to life. At the start when the new political prisoner Petrovič is taken offstage to be flogged, the men torment their wounded captive eagle, and at the end after Petrovič has been released, the eagle flies off to freedom — a glorious moment.
Yet in this production there is no eagle and the first and last scenes with Petrovič lack clarity. But before the music starts we first have to endure silence while a young man practises basketball on stage. Is this the eagle or merely to create atmosphere? That surely is the job of the music, but Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski has other ideas. We see a video with subtitles of a man talking about the role of the judge, a clear reference to the EU’s problem with perceived politicisation of the judiciary in Poland. As a co-production with La Monnaie in Brussels, the EU elite may love it, but I doubt it will work in Britain, and there were ample boos for the production team at the end.
And it’s not just the concept that was tiresome, but the staging itself with its horrid bright lighting that compelled the director to change the storyline. Rather than Šiškov recognising at the end that the dead Luka is really the man beloved by his girlfriend, whom he killed, the guards handcuff him as if he has murdered Luka. In a dark production that sticks with Janáček’s opera everything becomes clear, but here the multiple goings-on with dancers, a cross-dressing Aljeja (tenor Pascal Charbonneau rather than a mezzo), occasional white masks and life-size female dolls created confusion and distraction.
This is a great pity because it was musically wonderful. Janáček’s score was only published posthumously after being altered by his students, but this was John Tyrrell’s recreation of the original, from which Mark Wigglesworth and the orchestra produced huge emotional power. Closing my eyes, Janáček’s compelling music rose above the irritations of the staging, and the singers were terrific, notably Willard White as Petrovič, Štefan Margita as Luka, Johan Reuter as Šiškov, Peter Hoare as Šapkin, Grant Doyle as Čekunov, Ladislav Elgr as Skuratov, and Nicky Spence as a very expansive big prisoner.
Comparisons may be odious but anyone who wants to witness a staging that brings out the depth of Dostoyevsky while staying true to Janáček’s vision should see the wonderful production by Welsh National Opera. For the ROH with its large public and private financial support this is a great disappointment.
Performances continue on various dates until March 24 — for details click here.