cast of house of the dead

From The House of the Dead

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


To find Welsh National Opera bringing Janáček’s From The House of the Dead to Birmingham is no surprise. Czech (or here, more precisely, Moravian) opera has been a passion of WNO Artistic Director David Pountney’s from the outset.

He first gained international acclaim, in his mid-twenties, with an acclaimed Kátya Kabanová for Ireland’s enterprising Wexford Festival. His staging of Janáček’s Osud and The Excursions of Mr. Brouček, both rarely staged, plus a wheelchair Rusalka (Dvořák) were among his landmark productions during his tenure at ENO.

Smetana’s Dalibor, a historical opera that could easily prove static, he enlivened at the Edinburgh Festival with dramatically intense leads, and costumes reminiscent of the Inquisition. He more or less single-handedly hauled back into the repertoire the same composer’s The Two Widows.

He has brought the Czech Martinů (Julietta, The Greek Passion) into the mainstream. Championing other parts of Eastern Europe Pountney recovered the Polish-British Andrei Tchaikovsky’s unperformed The Merchant of Venice (Bregenz, then WNO), got to grips with Szymanowski’s mesmerising King Roger (Barcelona, at the same time as others at Covent Garden);  and especially excitingly has championed the works of Mieczyslaw (Moishe) Vainberg, an avant-garde composer with an unerring dramatic sense much admired by Shostakovich..

Pountney’s Janáček stagings are sought after worldwide, and invariably culminate in triumph. The House of Dead was Janáček’s last opera, and has an unusual structure in that its intensity stems mainly from the fact that, although there are a vast number of named male roles (more than in Britten’s Billy Budd), the drama focuses on just three or four soliloquies, or rather, rants, projected to the listening huddle of prisoners. One is reminded of the structure of Petronius’s ‘novel’ Satyricon, which again dwells on half a dozen characters recounting stories, some autobiographical, to the gathered dinner guests. The other diversion is a double scene devised by actors led by Don Juan (the vocally splendid bass Julian Close), with shades of the strolling players in Hamlet as well as Commedia dell’arte.


Paul Charles Clark, (Big Convict), left, Laurence Cole, (The Cook), Julian Close, (Don Juan), and Adrian Thompson (Shapkin). Pictures: Clive Barda. 

Conversely there are only two female singing roles, one of whom is a boy, a character found in the original Dostoyevsky (Alyeya, played by Paula Greewood, the evolution of whose relationship with the beaten around political prisoner Goryanchikov, Ben McAteer, is one of the few touching human sequences in the opera; the other, a minor appearance in passing, is a prostitute (Sareah Pope) who briefly services one of the randier younger prisoners.

The House of the Dead is made for Pountney, involving as it does plenty of grey, depressed trudging as the convicts in the Gulag (this is Dostoyevsky, who to all intents was deprived of liberty for some 10 years, four of them in a hard labour camp, anticipating Solzhenitsin; the prison camp is Siberian, not Czech), who go about their hard labour work (initially intensive sewing, whether of mailbags is not clear). The set which his regular former Designer Maria Björnson - the production dates back - devised for him was delightfully dreary, and aptly so. She gave him a number of levels which provided for an effective range of moves, or of occasional blocks, such as Goryanchikov and Alyeya picked out midstage right (this was a tricky one to light. Chris Ellis, his plan interpreted here by Benjamin Naylor, showed remarkable skill in picking out various subscenes, and this added greatly to the variety as well as limiting the potential longueurs).

The bottle-green-coated officers, whose patrolling with batons perhaps lacked cogent invention, are headed by Robert Hayward as the Camp Commandant: a severe presence who nonetheless acquiesces in the prisoners’ Easter festivities in which four actors join Close (Don Juan) in the first show, followed by thre mummers’ play-like classic tale of the Miller’s wife who conceals her sundry lovers under her dress, their traditional mock-medieval antics given prominence by being placed high above before the seated guests, visiting Priest, etc.

It’s the gentle interweaving of the chorus and/or multiple leads onstage that test a director. The ability to move and relocate individuals and block his groupings (notably here several ‘back to work’ sequences) shows the hand of an experienced and supertalented individual. Pountney is one of those who never fails in this respect. Characters are not left to fend for themselves: each tiny shift, ideally, is managed and specifically concocted: each actor knows exactly when to move, and where; how to respond, and when. There was a lot of that in this staging, and it made the evolving sequences endlessly interesting.

There were one or two half-characters, like Quentin Hayes’ Small Convict, who makes up for it by trying to be one of the big ones.  Hayes is a baritone, and a singer-actor of real inventiveness and standing, but his ability to depict a whining, put-upon, hapless nonentity was impressive: we know he can yelp from the impact of his lead in the in-your-face Berkoff/Turnage opera Greek. His character verges on the infuriating Squeak from Billy Budd. Here he gets his mean little own back on the world, earning universal disapproval, by tipping (here, boiling) water onto Alyeya, which takes us for the subsequent act, at least nominally (not much visually), into the hospital wing.


Alan Oke in chains as Skuratov

Who supplies these arresting solo arias? Not so much vignettes as great slices of this opera. The Act I mixture of forced, ironic and genuine jollity from Skuratov (Alan Oke) unleashed a character who proved (with Shishkov, latterly) one of the surpassing highlights of the whole work. Oke is one of those performers, originally a favourite with Opera North, who has evolved into a major figure, his transition from originally baritone to tenor, and a remarkably high one, one of those evolutions of a British opera singer as impressive as that of Hayward (Khovansky in Khovanshchina, q.v.).

Skuratov’s ‘wild singing and dancing’, as the synopsis characterised it, part mock-cheerful, part joyously over the top, and also cheerily part-rhymed, became all the more bizarre, a total contrast with the dourer aspects of the Gulag. Janáček allows his orchestral mottoes to hot up and zing in accompaniment. This was a tour-de-force, of the kind that helped earn this staging its deserved five stars.

Silencing Skuratov’s scatty soliloquy enables Luka Kuzmich (Mark Le Brocq), to some extent the father of the chain gang so far, to utter his own. Why these disparate desperados are in prison at all just occasionally, as here, emerges. Not all are like Goryanchikov (whom the opera classes a political prisoner; in the Dostoyevsky original he is the Narrator, but has also killed his wife). Luka, who to his credit, or foolhardily, has incited a riot and slain a particularly vicious guard. What Luka’s ensuing outburst, placed firmly frontstage, lacks in Skuratov-like variety it makes up for in power and authority. It demanded attention, and from the convicts not least, earned it.  

Oke’s Skuratov has a second bite, describing how he shot the bridegroom of a girl he had been courting; rather than vengeful and excitable, it is sung in almost lyric vein. The next narrator is Adrian Thompson’s Shapkin, a somewhat bleating figure who has his own fretful tale, increasingly crazed.

But the massive climax of the opera – here a declamation of astonishing power from Simon Bailey - is devoted to the character Shishkov (even reinforced by mild comedy: ‘let me finish’, he repeats to his eager for more, smirking interlocutor Cherevin (here superb, the tenor Gareth Dafydd Morris impressing with one of his most compelling performances). It focuses on the virginity (‘She proves a virgin, a model daughter’) – or not – of a girl Shishkov is compelled to marry but ultimately killed. It’s all the more effective for the little French horn twirls – almost riffs – the composers intertwines. It is classed as ‘Janáček’s longest monologue’, and one would assume that embraces all of the composer’s operas. It is a tour-de- force to compare with the greatest prolonged arias of the Classical or Romantic era.

The translation is by the Director, Pountney, who has a gift for this art too: despite the famous difficulty of catching the pecking snatches and brittle motifs that constitute Janáček’s wondrously diffuse style, this English text seems to capture the Czech admirably: to the extent that one did not find oneself pining for the original. There are points where Janáček’s word-handling is distinctly echoed by Britten.


Mark Le Brocq as Luka Kuzmich

An attempt by Czech specialist John Tyrrell to restore the score as Janáček wanted, sheared of others’ additions just as Mussorgsky had to be cleared of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘cleanings up’, has doubtless improved the dramatic sharpness and relevance aspired to by the composer. 

Other salient details included the fabulous, dazzlingly folksy (Czech, no attempt by the composer at Russian) violin solo at the start (David Adams, seemingly), gloriously doubled with another a little later on; and some projection effects capturing the lifelike caged (and uncaged), wounded then healed, eagle which becomes the prisoners’ mascot, and features prominently hoist above the brief Act 3 prelude and subsequent interlude. Some of the choruses, possibly onstage but sounding offstage, were wondrously haunting and moving. An authoritative presence, and vocally prominent near the end, was the Old Convict (Peter Wilman), a sort of hovering Robinson Crusoe figure, who added usefully to the atmosphere, and from his various positionings, to the variety.

The final touches – the old man’s expressive contribution, the moment when Shishkov extraordinarily discovers that Luka is the rival of his story, Filka,;the moving declaration of the boy Alyeya (to the now freed Goryanchikov), ‘You are my father, I am your son’; are all eclipsed by the wretched ‘back to work’ order.

The eagle, unlike the prisoners, flies free. The mechanical, automaton-like trudging begins once more, with brass, especially insistent tuba, underlying the inescapability of it all and the restitution of ghastly routine.

A sort of redeeming sunburst sees them off: the wheel starts to turn once again. It is as if the action we have witnessed, the private revelations we have been privy to, has or have never taken place. Yet each and every shuffling body contains an embattled mind, a different or a shared philosophy. And that is what Janáček’s opera, and Dostoyevsky before him, have laid before us.

Roderic Dunnett


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