So 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.
They 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.