How can a creation as desolate as Janáček's final opera be so life-affirming? David Pountney's epic staging, first seen 35 years ago, remains a devastating (albeit at 90 minutes mercifully brief) experience because... well, the clue is in the title.
From the House of the Dead is little more than a series of vignettes that combine to paint a haunting fresco of humanity on the edge. Drawing on Dostoyevsky's Notes from the House of the Dead, Janáček spares no inmate in his Siberian prison camp as they watch time pass and await their end. The late Maria Björnson's towering, lowering sets are hideously compelling in Welsh National Opera's production, whether glimpsed in part or revealed in full by Chris Ellis's heartless lighting, and they teem with life. Oh the irony.
A thunderous orchestral prelude, delivered with extreme prejudice by the WNO Orchestra under its brilliant music director (and compatroit of Janáček) Tomáš Hanus, takes us down among the dead men in the company of a majestic eagle, the "tsar of all forests" and an emblem of freedom. But within minutes of the start the bitter truth behind that image becomes clear, for the prisoners have captured their own bird of prey which they keep locked up and thoughtlessly ill-treat. So much for symbols.
Pountney, who has redirected his 1982 production using his own powerful translation, opts for a palette of ultra-realism and finds beauty in despair. It's a celebration of life in the tiniest details, because the less we have of joy the more our fleeting pleasures are precious, like diamond dust in dirt. And when you have nothing left at all, you can tell stories. It's an opera where souls cling to religion, nature and memories in order to stay human.
In a predominantly male cast only Paula Greenwood as Alyeya, an imprisoned youth, has a substantial soprano role, and she grabs it greedily. Amongst the key tale-tellers there's a powerful tenor-off between Alan Oke and Adrian Thompson, both fearful and eloquent in their anguish, while Simon Bailey as the embittered Shiskov dominates the final act and suffers an appalling revelation at the close.
With immense contributions from, among many others, Ben McAteer, Mark Le Brocq and Robert Hayward (the last of them typecast as the camp commandant), the opera's universality hits home. There was a time when a sentence to hard labour in Siberian prison camps was a Soviet cliché; but the reality of it, at least according to Janáček's 1927 opera, anticipated the rise of Nazi death camps and horrors beyond.
The clinking of prisoners' chains is an obbligato constant, an aural horror underpinning a score that's already loaded with its own remorselessness. Yet they're also a reminder that these wretches of the earth are still alive. When the chinkle-chankle stops, that's the time to worry.
There is a further performance of From the House of the Dead at the Wales Millennium Centre on 12 October. It then tours to Southampton, Llandudno, Birmingham, Bristol and Oxford until 29 November.