Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome – Janáček’s From the House of the Dead

From the House of the Dead – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by the composer after Notes from the House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky [sung in an English translation by David Pountney, with English surtitles]

Goryanchikov – Ben McAteer
Alyeya – Paula Greenwood
Luka Kuzmich / Filka Morozov – Mark Le Brocq
Big Convict – Paul Charles Clarke
Small Convict – Quentin HayesCommandant – Robert Hayward
Old Convict – Peter Wilman
Skuratov – Alan Oke
Drunken Convict – Michael Clifton-Thompson
Chekunov – Alastair Moore
The Cook – Laurence Cole
The Smith – Martin Lloyd
The Priest – Alastair Moore
Young Convict – Adam Music
A Whore – Sarah Pope
Kedril – Simon Crosby Buttle
Shapkin – Adrian Thompson
Shishkov – Simon Bailey
Cherevin – Gareth Dafydd Morris
Don Juan – Julian Close
A Guard – Joe Roche
Off-stage voice – Gareth Dafydd Morris

Chorus & Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Tomáš Hanus

David Pountney – Director
Maria Björnson – Designer
Chris Ellis – Lighting
Benjamin Naylor – Tour Lighting

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 2 November, 2017
Venue: Birmingham Hippodrome, England

Welsh National Opera – Janáček’s From the House of the DeadPhotograph: Clive BardaSo atmospherically powerful is David Pountney’s staging of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead that it comes as a shock to realise that it was first mounted thirty-five years ago! From distant recollection, there have been some modernising modifications – notably the incorporation of some video technology in Act Three to project images of the imprisoned eagle gradually returning to health and flight, but the multi-level claustrophobic set as the prisoners go through their miserably routine daily grind accompanied by the clanging of their shackles remains extremely potent.

The opera is characterised by scenes and individual narratives set against the relentless march of time. The cast is a large one. Thus we had Robert Hayward’s vicious and alcohol-fuelled Commandant, Ben McAteer’s brutalised political prisoner aristocrat, Adrian Thompson’s Shapkin and Paul Charles Clarke’s Big Convict sharing the stage with the three singers who have the bulk of the back-stories – Alan Oke was a compelling Skuratov, delivering how the man shot the bridegroom of the girl he had wanted to marry; Mark Le Brocq was an effectively thuggish and bullish Luka; and Simon Bailey’s powerfully penetrating voice thrilled in the narration of Shishkov. The culmination is the realisation that the character’s former rival (Luka) is in the camp and dying, effectively enacted in vocal and theatrical terms. Paula Greenwood was an extremely sympathetic Alyeya, the boy seeking to improve his lot under the guidance of Goryanchikov. Each member of the cast made every word of the translation completely audible rendering the surtitles almost superfluous.

Welsh National Opera – Janáček’s From the House of the DeadPhotograph: Clive BardaThey were helped by the WNO Orchestra performing wonders under Tomáš Hanus. He has the blood of Brno coursing through his veins and the legacy of the city’s most-famous composer to protect and promote. Fantastic subdued horn-playing, almost-astringent string-sound and thrilling woodwind interjections were characteristic of a reading both dramatic and consistently surprising. The oddly lilting music of the strange interlude of the second Act was spot-on in terms of being reassuring yet oddly unsettling.

The latest critical edition, following much scholarly work by John Tyrrell and Sir Charles Mackerras, is being used: it is compelling listening, the textures more transparent, and the excision of some ‘historical’ accretions, presents a different dramatic slant to our undoubted benefit – one of Janáček’s most-innovative and daring works.

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