Sunday, 13 January 2019

Janáček - From the House of the Dead (Brussels, 2018)

Leoš Janáček - From the House of the Dead

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2018

Michael Boder, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Willard White, Pascal Charbonneau, Štefan Margita, Nicky Spence, Ivan Ludlow, Alexander Vassiliev, Graham Clark, Ladislav Elgr, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Aleš Jenis, Pavlo Hunka, Florian Hoffmann, Natascha Petrinsky, John Graham-Hall, Peter Hoare, Alexander Kravets, Alejandro Fonte, Maxime Melnik

La Monnaie Streaming - November 2018

Krzysztof Warlikowski's production of Janáček's From the House of the Dead received mixed reviews when it opened at the Royal Opera House early last year. Seen again as a co-production with La Monnaie in Brussels - who would be much more familiar with the director's working methods - it's clear that Warlikowski does try to impose too much onto Janáček's final opera, but even though it has enough going on in its own terms, it's not as if the opera can't take it. As with the Royal Opera House production, if it serves just to get this magnificent work performed - it's not only Warlikowski's debut there but From the House of the Dead that had never before been performed at Covent Garden - then it's job done, and despite the usual reservations and sometimes valid complaints about the director's methods, it's largely a job well done.

As far as trying to do too much, well Warlikowski could probably have done without the theoretical philosophising of Michel Foucault distracting from the strong musical opening scored by Janáček that takes you into a world of masculine power-play and violence that has a heightened malevolence within the confines of a prison. It matters little whether that is a work camp in Siberia, as it is in Dostoevsky's original work - one written about from hard-earned experience as a political prisoner - or in what looks more like an American prison yard. It's a work about observations on the nature of life in the prison camp, the kind of people from all walks of life who end up there and what confinement does to them.

While the philosophical elements add little to the essential meaning of the work, they do at least present an observational view on the nature of justice and imprisonment. Far more successful are the real-life observations in the filmed interviews that give the production a more genuine human touch that is far from theoretical. Projected onto the steel curtain that drops between acts, a prisoner talks about his detachment from the world around him and how it leads to a greater awareness of the presence of death. It adds to the deeper exploration in Janáček's opera of sentiments that are brought out rather than submerged or destroyed by the pervasive violence, anger, hatred, bitterness and regret around them. Women are almost never out of their thoughts or stories - love and family - but even though it is twisted and distorted in this all-male environment, it's a spark that still ignites passions.

That spark needs to be there in a production and From the House of the Dead doesn't have much in the way of action to dramatise. Warlikowski finds other fine ways of expressing those inner underlying sentiments and the complex way they manifest themselves in words and actions, stories acted out with cartoon violence and life in the prison environment with much more realistic brutality. He also avoids what would now appear to be hackneyed imagery in the references to birds, and in particular an injured eagle that is looked after by the inmates and released at the same time as the political prisoner Gorjančikov. Warlikowski finds a more modern and original form of expressing it using two black dancers (dancers often serving a similar function in the director's productions). Cross-dressing and play-acting out the drama in Act II is given perhaps too much emphasis with too much going on that is distracting (another frequent feature in Warlikowski's productions), but it's an attempt find a modern way to relate to those deeper masculine concerns expressed in the work.

From the House of the Dead then is not a conventional work and it doesn't have a central figure much less a hero, as that would go against the intentions of what the work is about. Gorjančikov's narrator becomes an observer, collecting not just stories but also recording the impact these significant incidents have had on the inmates. It's about how hope and the spark of human kindness is never extinguished, even in such a place, even after all they've been through. Each of the characters relate their stories, their fears and complexes, their humanity submerged by the proximity and behaviour of other male characters, of having to get on and live with them, of having to survive not being shafted by them in one way or another, and Warlikowski does this by focussing on the relationships, on little acts of kindness between them, even after acts of appalling violence.

Janáček was always a progressive 20th century musical innovator, a unique voice who had developed a few tricks in his time and never rested on a single simple means of expression but was constantly seeking to innovate. His use of adapting the rhythms of the spoken voice to determine flow and rhythm are expanded further here for the specific challenges of adapting From the House of the Dead. The rhythmic pulse could be seen as representing the monotony and repetition of daily existence, but Janáček - particularly in this new critical edition of the score, a score that Janáček was unable to oversee though to completion - shows subtle shifts under Michael Boder's direction. Never simply repetitive, it's constantly developing and changing, showing how people can adapt to their surroundings and change it by degrees.

Within the score and the world it depicts, human actions, words and behaviours are not negligible and can cause unpredictable shifts as hope turns to despair, the progressive rhythm broken by outbursts of violence, then repaired and finding its rhythm again. It's an incredibly rich work, Janáček also employing harder sounds and unconventional instruments including chains, not as a dramatic element, but as part of the fabric of the world the work operates within. Ultimately however personal interpretation is vital to bring the work to life and it's that investment that is brought to it by an outstanding cast of singers who are given plenty to get their teeth into. Pavlo Hunka in particular makes Šiškov's Act III story heartbreaking and Nicky Spence is a menacing figure in a number of character roles that exhibit a surprising but necessary emotional range for this work. That's all to fit perfectly not with Janáček's score, but with the thoughtful interpretation of this remarkable work by Boder and Warlikowski.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt