Janacek’s opera is based upon Dostoevsky’s memoirs of his time in a Siberian prison. It tells the story through individuals who relate the crimes that lead to them being incarcerated. This storytelling technique results in a fragmented and verbose piece- more like a series of short stories than a cohesive whole. It also influences the performances, as the singers have to clearly convey the lengthy narrative rather than impress with their vocal prowess.
Director John Fulljames tries a variety of techniques to mitigate the static nature of the show. He employs mime and the surtitles imaginatively spill off the screens across the stage. But the impression remains of a show that is essentially a series of monologues with limited action. Bruno Poet’s lighting creates a bleak and hopeless atmosphere for the gulag and Fullajohn does not hesitate to emphasise the brutality of the regime which leaves even those prisoners who are freed broken and subdued .
Janacek’s score is cinematic in the use of music to generate an emotional response in the audience. Jagged strings remind us that violence is never far away and percussion is provided by chains and whips. However, it also brings across some of the monotony of prison life with little variety until rousing horns appear in the closing act.
From the House of the Dead is a realistically grim look at the brutalising effect of prison life which doesn’t make it an easy show to watch.