Leos Janacek’s From the House of the Dead has no coherent narrative and, in John Fulljames’ production, character definition for more than a few principals is limited, with the shaven heads and prison uniforms, plus Bruno Poet’s shadowed lighting, meaning that, at curtain call, it was sometimes difficult to tell which character was receiving the applause.
Yet it’s a compelling evening. The libretto, adapted by the composer from Dostoyevsky’s novel, is mainly a series of tortured individual narratives by prisoners, the early imprisonment of the aristocrat Goryanchikov and his release in the closing minutes hardly constituting a developing plot. John Fulljames has confidence in the power of these narratives and doesn’t encumber them with gratuitous distraction. The production has its episodes of well-handled action, ranging from brutality to the camp cavortings of the bizarre “play within a play”, but for much of Act 3 Fulljames is happy to leave his cast half-way up ladders or huddled on the ground, barely moving in either case.
All the narratives are powerfully delivered, without undue histrionics, notably by Robert Hayward (Shishkov) whose increasingly tormented account of murdering his possibly unfaithful wife dominates Act 3. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, as Luka, the villain of Shishkov’s story, is, as ever, wonderfully direct, with a sort of bruised lyricism. Alan Oke (Skuratov) and Mark Le Brocq (Shapkin) also seize their moments. On the Opera North website Roderick Williams makes the point that Janacek does not really define the character of Goryanchikov, so he and the director could develop their own interpretation. Unfortunately Williams was indisposed on the first night; Richard Morrison was suitably dignified and sang the part impressively, but the character remained elusive. Not so that of his youthful protégé Alyeya, vividly and movingly portrayed by Claire Wild.
The main impetus for the evening, however, lies with the orchestra under Richard Farnes. Though Janacek’s scoring can be sparse in the extreme, he deploys a large orchestra when needed: euphonium, contra bassoon and bass clarinet add to the colour and the Grand Theatre pit contains no fewer than seven percussionists. The Opera North orchestra’s response is superb: thrilling, precise, relishing all the jagged phrasing and quirky orchestration of Janacek’s score.
From the House of the Dead is a true ensemble piece, with committed and accomplished performances from the entire cast. I just wonder whether the totally successful establishment of the prison dynamic comes at the expense of individual characterisation.