In this season of revivals, with a quasi-Russian Revolution theme, a new Czech musical director Tomáš Hanus in post and possibly an eye on budgets, this old House of the Dead production must have seemed a sensible idea. So here we have Dostoyevsky’s grim 19th century stories set in a bleak Siberian prison following on from Imperial Eugene Onegin and late medieval Khovanshchina.
The magic of this Janáček’s work is how he takes a series of individual stores and forges an opera from them and employs music that is a revolutionary upheaval of music that he somehow crafts into a work of intense, gut wrenching beauty. Hanus conducts with a strength, a violence, that rocks us out of any complacency yet also glides us through the moments of gentle beauty in the score.
The orchestra is balanced in musical accomplishment from the cast of singer-actors from Adrian Thompson’s (Shapkin) ear wrenching by a corrupt magistrate, Alan Oke’s (Skuratov) fatal wedding present, Simon Bailey’s (Shishkov) visceral story, Mark Le Brocq (Filka) prison guard murder and others all eagerly grabbed by the cast with both hands. The WNO men’s chorus is in its element here.
Paul Charles Clark, Laurence Cole, Julian Close and Adrian Thompson
David Pountney and designer Maria Björnson’s production for what is presented as a one-act work with the absolute minimum of breaks, relying on raised platforms and walkways for the action to inhabit looks and feels of its time. Yes, it works for the prisoners to walk all around in a circle reinforcing their monotonous, endless, hopes existence. It does not hinder the individual storytelling as prisoners recount how they ended up in the hellhole. However, for larger prices of the narrative, such as the near panto played out on a platform with devils popping up through a trapdoor, now seems a little dated and clumsy. Even the intended humour that shows even in the darkest times the human spirit finds a way to survive is more confusing than comedic. Even the eagle projections, the mechanical bird in a cage, jar as antiquated and are compounded by the absence of a real raptor that delighted us back in the day.
Is it worth the revival? Possibly not as a piece of theatre but as a vehicle for orchestra and singer undoubtedly.
Images: CLIVE BARDA/ArenaPAL
Further performances at WMC October 12 then touring including Venue Cymru, Llandudno October 26
Eugene Onegin review:
Natalya Romaniw (Tatyana in Eugene Onegin):
What makes Arts Scene in Wales unique: