“So, Becky, where does From the House of the Dead rate on a scale of Madame Butterfly to 10?” asks Viv as we leave the Bristol Hippodrome, having just experienced the second production in Welsh National Opera’s short residency here. She’s referring to my dislike (and explosive anger) of the story behind Madame Butterfly. Hmm, good question, how does Leoš Janáček’s opera measure up?
Well, the story certainly didn’t anger me because there really isn’t much of one. We are given no solid narrative but rather a series of short rants by various inmates in this hellhole of a Siberian prison camp. Based on Dostoyevsky’s semi-autobiographical work of the same name, From the House of the Dead is unusually short at 90 minutes but it seems an awful lot longer due to its unusual structure and lack of storyline.
This is WNO’s Russian Revolution Season and you have to admire its courage in delivering something a little different from the usual repetitive offerings spewed out by many companies – you know, those love stories that often end in the death of the main female character. In fact, only one woman (‘a whore’) has been written into the work, based as it is in a men’s gulag. And, whoa, there are an awful lot of men: they fill the stage, clanking in their chains so that their terrible confinement breathes music. These men are filthy, pallid, desperate; barely alive until they recount the reasons they ended up in such a demoralising place.
Maria Björnson’s design is faultless with its crumbled walls and cramped spaces, definitely not somewhere you would like to be, and it is complimented fully by Chris Ellis and Benjamin Naylor’s lighting, especially when highlighting separate parts of the stage, revealing to us just how much is going on in a place where, on the face of it, nothing ever happens. Those endless conversations, those struggles for survival, attempts to find meaning in such drudgery. This is not a cheery opera, the only frivolity occurring in the ‘play within the play’, showing us that even the most downtrodden of beings are capable of fun. This is a treatise on humanity.
What stands out is the sheer size of this opera, with a couple of dozen cast on stage and a full orchestra. Janáček’s score is fiercely powerful and the vast and excellent orchestra, conducted by Tomáš Hanus, is at the heart of it all, as is the chorus – surely this is the perfect opera for a Welsh male cast? Boom! There is no outstanding role here because our Czech writer hasn’t allowed for one and WNO has done him absolute justice with an impressively cohesive ensemble, each person reeking of humanness, of dreadful solitude in togetherness. Teamwork is key here and WNO knows how that works.
Sung in English, there are also (perhaps unnecessarily distracting) surtitles and, although I’m sure David Pountney’s translation is as good as it could be, given the material, I would have preferred to have heard it in its original Czech because those Slavic words can surely only add to the realness of the whole experience.
From the House of the Dead is all about the music so if you’re hoping for a good story, don’t bother, and if you’ve never been to the opera before, don’t choose this one. If, however, you want to go out on a limb and witness an opera that offers something a little out of the ordinary, this might be for you. There is no doubt that it is excellently performed by every member of cast and each musician. I really recommend reading the programme before you take your seat; it will give you a different slant on what you are about to see. I wished I’d known that!
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See what’s coming up at the Bristol Hippodrome here