Sunday 18 March 2018

From the House of the Dead at the Royal, or, Distrusting the Work

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 10th March 2018.

It's been a lacklustre year for new productions at the Royal Opera, at least from where I've been sitting, and so it continues with this disappointing new Janacek. It is a real achievement to make this work emotionally cold and unmoving, director Krzysztof Warlikowski making his Royal Opera and UK debut sadly succeeds.

The trouble starts with the Act One prelude which is accompanied by subtitled film of Michel Foucault talking about the meaning of prisons. Film is also used between each of the other two acts where we are subjected to footage of what sounded to me like a black South African prisoner meditating on the meaning of life. The impact of these marvellous orchestral interludes is badly blunted by these interpolations which don't fit with the music at all, and add nothing to our understanding of the work as a whole. Janacek's opera is powerfully eloquent on the themes touched on by the films, their inclusion is simply unnecessary.

Warlikowski and designer Malgorzata Szczesniak set the action in one of the most bizarre prisons I've ever encountered. Physically we are in a gymnasium that doubles as a bedroom. It's very open and despite the presence of a raised corridor at the back with guards (obscured from my seat in the Amphi), it rarely feels claustrophobic. There's also a room on a truck periodically wheeled across from the left. This starts off as what appears to be the governor's office but the next minute prisoners are in occupation and it later serves as the setting for Siskov's Act Three monologue. At one point the room is turned right round to reveal a mirrored wall at the back whose purpose is opaque.

The lines between prisoners and guards are so blurred as to become pretty meaningless – I suspect this is deliberate, but it is not effective. The prisoners seem to be able to attack one another with knives with impunity, and often so abruptly (as in the very first scene) that the effect is not frightening but distancing. I found it difficult to credit that in an American prison which is where, it seems to me, there is some distant suggestion that we are located, more action would not be taken by guards to control such outbreaks of violence. Reaction by the guards also varies bizarrely – in the first scene it takes forever for any medical assistance to arrive, at the end of act two it arrives immediately. This kind of internal inconsistency in the creation of an on-stage world really irritates me.

More seriously Warlikowski is another in a long line of operatic directors who shows little ability to match his direction to the music and text, and who is frightened of stillness. The occasional moments when movement and music are in harmony – Willard White's slow rising to his feet at the Act One crescendo for example – point up the more consistent failure elsewhere. The life story monologues which are the heart of the piece are persistently undermined by the constant busyness Warlikowski has going on around them. Felice Ross's lighting is also at fault – so dim much of the time that from the Amphi it is often difficult to tell who is singing – such an approach seems to be in vogue at the moment (I was reminded of a poor recent EIF Cosi) – it is not effective.

Stranded in this ineffective, unmoving production, the ensemble of singers do their very best to give life to the story. Willard White's Gorjancikov has a marvellous still presence which is in blessed contrast to the confusion around him. There could have been a really powerful focus on race here, and flashes of it can be glimpsed, but it cannot transcend the busyness. Johan Reuter gives a fine account vocally of Siskov's monologue but I found the direction of the scene baffling, and the pacing slows to the point that I'm afraid I was simply bored (and distracted by the mystery of why Luka was chained to the basin). Also worthy of mention is Nicky Spence's Nikita.

In the pit Mark Wigglesworth and the orchestra had a mixed evening. The orchestra certainly threw themselves into it, and part of the problem is clearly that the production is so often undermining the music, but Wigglesworth's reading lacked nuance. The climaxes don't make the impact they should because the total score is delivered too much at the same level, and he too often missed the emotional and lyrical side of the piece. It's also notable that the sound of the chains in the prelude didn't cut through the texture as it should (and as it powerfully did when I heard Oramo conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the prelude a few years back).

In advance I was really looking forward to seeing this work again, after a striking Opera North production back in 2011, but this was a disappointing evening despite the best efforts of the singers. For the first time that I can recall in a Janacek opera performance I was at times bored. Holten's determination to return Janacek to the House was admirable. Hopefully forthcoming productions will enhance rather than fight Janacek's work. Given that the Jenufa (one of my very favourite operas) is to be directed by Claus Guth, responsible for the Royal Opera's recent flawed production of Die Frau, the signs are not very encouraging. In the meantime I'm sorry to say this is a show to miss.

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