Posthumously premiered in 1930 and based on Dostoyevsky’s semi-autobiographical novella about his experiences as a political prisoner in 19th-century Russia, Janacek’s final opera makes its belated Covent Garden debut.
A work of amazing originality and extraordinary expressive power, From the House of the Dead receives a musical performance it would be hard to beat. Janacek expert John Tyrrell’s new edition brings us closer to the composer’s intentions than ever before. The large, nearly all-male cast provides exemplary individual assumptions and the Royal Opera House Orchestra is on its most dedicated form under the insightful baton of Mark Wigglesworth.
The production – the first work by the admired Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski to be seen in the UK – has outstanding virtues, particularly in its presentation of the everyday life of the prison, moved forward in Malgorzata Szczesniak’s designs from Siberia around 1860 to a contemporary but geographically non-specific context.
Nothing is shirked in visualising the everyday brutality of the institution of the prison itself — with the inmates visiting sexual and other forms of violence on each other, just as those in overall charge do on them.
The central narratives of the featured prisoners recounting their horrendous crimes – the darkly tragic yet deeply human heart of the piece – are unfolded with concentrated power by Stefan Margita’s Luka, Ladislav Elgr’s Skuratov and Johan Reuter’s Siskov. Nicky Spence doubles memorably and at times outrageously as Nikita/Big Prisoner.
Willard W White frames the piece with his dignified Gorjancikov. Allison Cook brings pathos as well as pizzazz to the unnamed sex-worker. Pascal Charbonneau reveals the humanity of Aljeja, here a trans prisoner. Innumerable secondary roles in this quintessentially ensemble piece are brilliantly defined.
Less admirable – and indeed redundant – are the additional filmed sequences involving philosopher Michel Foucault and others taken from the documentary Gangster Backstage, which tell the audience nothing the show itself doesn’t already make painfully clear.