Original review: The Reviews Hub
Rough-and-ready and wistfully raw
The curtain rises on an intricate, ramshackle construction of bricks, boards, and broken men cascaded across a remarkable, multi-levelled recreation of a communal prison cell. We see in through a literal break in the fourth wall, as if one side of the set has been broken apart by an unseen force, and the literal and metaphorical walls keep coming down to reveal, in all their tough-and-tenderness, the men and the motives behind the criminals and their crimes.
David Pountney’s production of From the House of the Dead is a series of vignettes from the view of the deadened and slowly dying convicts as they survive the cruelty and uniformity of captivity and escape into a life once lived outside the four walls of their confinement. Their recollections and reflections are ragtag and fragmentary and resist many operatic conventions: the prisoners interrupt each other’s arias, there’s no concrete plot, and the cast has no principals but perform as a collective. For some, From the House of the Dead may feel more ragged than ragtag, but it works to reflect the rough-and-ready, unrefined reality of the prisoners’ experiences both within the prison and without.
Shackled and shaken, chained but courageous, the convicts shuffle and clamber about Maria Bjornson’s magnificent set like the world-weary, overworked, worn-down men they are, but there are also moments of marked, hard-hitting humanity. A new, noble inmate arrives and after being stripped and shorn, offers to show the youngest of his fellow criminals – a trouser-role affectionately crafted and chastely sung by Paula Greenwood – how to read and write, the same young criminal reaches out a trembling hand and tenderly touches the richness of a visiting civilian’s robe, and one crazed and constantly accused-of-lying convict – an excellent, quietly funny, and affecting Alan Oke – takes his chains attached to either wrist and holds them over his head in a morosely comic imitation of the hair he once had.
Janáček’s score, played with aplomb by Welsh National Opera’s accomplished orchestra and conducted with passion and expression by Tomáš Hanus, is at times as discordant and coarse as the clothes the convicts wear, and is underscored by the clinking of chains both in the percussive orchestra pit and on stage. While raw and rough and raucous, the music, magnificent chorus, and impassioned monologues are also, at times, wistful and gentle and just waiting, waiting, waiting for something to set them all free from the wearisome reality of jail.
And as the image of all the inmates hope for, a wounded eagle nursed back to full health, eventually flies free, they return to the immortal, monotonous march of imprisonment and oppression. Janáček’s music is no more, but the chains go on clinking.