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From the House of the Dead – an opera of redemption in glorious Janáček style

15 March, 2018 — By Sebastian Taylor

From the House of the Dead. Photo: ROH/Clive Barda

Magnificent, amazing orchestral music underpins a strong production of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead at the Royal Opera House.

This is vintage Janáček, his last major work written in 1927 when he was 73. All the blemishes of earlier operas are finally done away with in a glorious flourish of the Janáček style.

Apparently, the Czech composer had an odd way of writing music. He’d wake up in the night with a phrase or tune buzzing in his head – and he’d succeed in getting the music down on paper when he woke up. That accounts for the Janáček style, an endless succes­sion of phrases, repeated again and again, some­thing of a forerunner to repetitive composers such as Steve Reich and John Adams. Here, we get thunderous brass, shimmering woodwind and resplendent strings, all delivered with great skill by conductor Mark Wigglesworth.

The opera is based on Dostoyevsky’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, describing life in a Siberian gulag. The ROH staging by Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski places the work in a US-style penitentiary – younger prisoners playing basketball, older ones having a smoke and a laugh. The governor’s office is in a cage that doubles up as a stage.

There’s not much of a story-line. Rather, it’s an opera about redemption, a depiction of the potential for good even in the most hardened criminals. This is done through a succession of prisoners’ stories about their terrible, violent lives – terrors of interrogation, wedding nights that go wrong.

A great cast of singers from all over the world put their all into the piece, among them Willard White, Nicky Spence and Graham Clark.

From the House of the Dead: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, WC2, March 19, 22 and 24, 8pm, 020 7304 4000, www.roh.org.uk

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