From the House of the Dead in Southampton

It has been very hectic around here since I got back from India last week, so I’ve only just found time to do a quick review of Welsh National Opera’s production of From the House of the Dead which I saw last Friday at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton. I was away for the two performances of this Opera in Cardiff earlier this month and when I mentioned to a couple of friends of mine from London that I was hoping to catch it while it was on tour we decided to compare diaries and see if there was any way we could go together. And so it came to pass that we all ended up in Southampton, me returning to Cardiff through Storm Brian the next day, and Joao and Kim flying off to Cape Verde for two weeks from Gatwick Airport.

Anyway, to the Opera. From the House of the Dead is by Leoš Janáček, and is based on the autobiographical novel of the same (or similar) name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It is set in a Siberian prison, in one such establishment Dostoyevsky himself spent four years of his life. It’s a grim story that starts with the arrival of a nobleman, Goryanchikov, to start his sentence. He is stripped of his fine clothes, beaten and tortured, then joins the wretched ensemble of captives until he is unexpectedly released at the end of the Opera. In between the prisoners take turns to describe their life stories, holding on to the past as people do who perceive that they have no future. There is little plot other than this series of narratives apart from a quasi-comic interlude provided by an Easter `show’, in the form of a pantomime. The work is in three relatively short acts which, in this production, run together without an interval. The whole performance lasts about 90 minutes. The picture above, taken during a previous run of this production in Finland, conveys the look and feel of this revival of a production by David Pountney that was first performed in 1982.

From the House of the Dead was written in the last years of Janáček’s life and was not performed until two years after his death. It opens with a prelude that reminded me a lot of his superb String Quartet No. 2 (`Intimate Letters’), written around the same time (1928) but whereas that work is about the nature of love, this Opera is about loneliness, isolation and brutality. The musical score is very rich and varied, but the vocal lines rather constricted, as if to emphasise the sense of captivity. It’s also really an ensemble piece rather than one in which the principal vocalists stand out from the chorus. This works very well for Welsh National Opera, as the chorus of WNO is exceptional. The Orchestra, under the direction of Tomas Hanus (himself a native of Brno, where Janáček lived for much of his life), played superbly, bringing out the subtleties of the orchestration by adding contrasting notes of optimism and hope to the intense, unrelenting darkness.

In short it was well worth the trip to Southampton, even if it did take me five hours to get home via two trains and a rail replacement bus service. This production has deservedly been very positively reviewed in the national media and I strongly recommend you see it during one if its remaining dates, in Oxford, Birmingham, Bristol or Llandudno.

7 Responses to “From the House of the Dead in Southampton”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    Good.

    For many years I’ve wanted to familiarise myself more with Janáček’s operas. I adore his large orchestral works such as the Glagolitic Mass, the Sinfonietta and Taras Bulba.

  2. Tom Shanks Says:

    Next – Brexit the musical!

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      That’s already been done by Wagner – it’s Act 3 of Götterdämmerung in which Brünnhilde erects a huge bonfire, sets it alight and destroys everything.

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