Janacek is the master of the operatic title. Think of the slippery, sleight-of-hand emphasis of Jenufa in its original Czech —Her Stepdaughter — or the elegant misdirection of The Beginning of a Romance. It encourages the suspicion that when Janacek christened his final opera, deliberately truncating the title of Dostoyevsky’s Siberian prison camp-inspired novel Notes From the House of the Dead, there was good reason.
It’s a title that opens out a description into an implied question: From the House of the Dead to, where or what exactly? Where can you go, who can you cry out to, once you have crossed over into the underworld and witnessed its horrors?
Where indeed. In this new production by Krzysztof Warlikowksi — the first ever, unaccountably, in the Royal Opera House’s history — the answer remains frustratingly unclear. There’s evidence of conflict and confusion throughout; the lavish scope and scale of Malgorzata Szczesniak’s contemporary designs contradicts the grotty, insistent smallness and ugliness of the human detail within. The expansive, poetic symbol of the wounded eagle, tormented at first, then healed and freed by the prisoners, is here rendered quite literally earth-bound, transformed into a man viciously attacked by his fellow inmates. But a final scene, in which violent abuser Nikita presides, Christ-like, over the Eagle’s first tottering steps from his wheelchair, sees realism curdle into sentimentality, dramatic prose into second-rate visual poetry. Resurrection or eternal damnation — Warlikowski cannot seem to decide.
Janacek’s interest is with the individuals trapped within the prison system, the stories that make the man — not for nothing does this almost plotless opera spend so much of its time in reminiscence, as each inmate narrates the events leading up to his incarceration. Warlikowski’s interest, on the other hand, is with the system itself. Time and again, where the music urges us to feel, the director asks us instead to think. Subtitled video footage of Michel Foucault — a philosopher crucially more interested in the idea of prison than in prisons themselves — shouts silently over the top of Janacek’s ragingly, potently articulate score, while documentary-style interviews with a present-day death row prisoner only serve to stress the point that damaged men are, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each damaged very much in their own way.
Yet, piercing cleanly through all the clamouring stage choreography, its crowded, compulsive, hysterical white noise of colour and movement, are Mark Wigglesworth and the Royal Opera House Orchestra. They square the circle of a score (heard here in John Tyrrell’s authoritative new edition) that strives constantly towards beauty while also beating it back with violent chromaticism — where the insistent rhythms of a folk dance are also the unrelenting blows of the torturer. But the orchestra also becomes the voice that Janacek’s prisoners, manacled in music that never quite escapes into song, cannot express.
It’s hard to imagine a finer cast of singing actors than this — a musical army of generals. Stefan Margita is a wild-eyed Luka, yoked for ever in his punishment to love-rival Siskov (a blazing Johan Reuter). Tenor Pascal Charbonneau preserves the pliant, womanish quality of Aljeja, normally a britches role, while an incandescent Nicky Spence brings a brute beauty to Nikita. Stoic and still at the centre of it all is Willard White’s Gorjancikov — the political prisoner whose release in the opera’s closing moments only twists the knife in the wound of those left behind.
When Lysander speaks of the ‘peril of the Athenian law’ in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream he’s quickly hushed by all around him, and the action moves on to happier things. But a speech excised from the libretto tells us precisely what that peril is: death. No less than Janacek’s prisoners, the lovers of Midsummer are seeking escape from an oppressive regime. The dangers they face at Theseus’ court are real and, unlike the punishments of Oberon’s enchanted wood, cannot be undone.
So why do so many directors insist on denying the opera’s menace, neutering its subversive sexuality and bleaching its primary colours into pretty fairytale pastels? Robert Carsen’s production, currently revived at ENO, might be set on a giant bed, but a cup of cocoa and a bedtime story is about as far as this PG romp goes. Liam Steel’s production for the Royal College of Music, by contrast, is a decidedly adult affair. Set somewhere between a sex dungeon and a Weimar cabaret, it may succumb to visual clichés (corsetry and sequins play rather too prominent a role), and lacks a coherent vision for the mechanicals, but in raising its skirts it also raises the dramatic stakes.
Steel’s dark, mercurial fantasy is anchored by strong orchestral playing under conductor Michael Rosewell, and by a really outstanding cast. There’s not a weak link to be heard, but woodland laurels are shared between Timothy Morgan’s rhetorical Oberon, every phrase coaxed into thoughtful musical shape, Harriet Eyley’s full-blooded Tytania and Joel Williams’s radiant Lysander, who all give the pros up the road at the Coliseum a run for their money.
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