Janacek s final opera is in many ways his strangest work for the stage. His previous three operas were all inspired by his love for Kamila Stosslova and have women as the central characters. There are no women in his reworking of Dostoyevsky s Memoirs from the House of the Dead, indeed there is no plot to speak of. The three acts comprise narratives from four of the prisoners, explaining to other inmates the crimes which they ve committed, usually brutal murders of their wives or lovers. On the surface it all seems pretty grim. Yet it is Janacek s belief in the human spirit which transcends all this into one of the crowning operatic masterpieces of the 20th century.
The score is unique, even in Janacek s operatic output and, when it s performed as brilliantly as it was by ENO, it stands as a crowning achievement to a remarkable life. The work is designed for a strong company, and ENO suddenly seems at the peak of its powers, now that it has proper musical leadership. Paul Daniel s conducting is superb and he coaxes the orchestra to play splendidly. Every nuance of Janacek s extraordinary orchestral palette is present.
Tim Albery s production in Stewart Laing s clean-cut designs are an initial shock to the eye when the curtain rises. Having grown up on David Pountney s superlative WNO/SO production, the cleanly defined edges jarred; it all seemed too clinical for a Soviet labour camp. But my doubts were soon swept away with the keen attention to detail which Albery instils in the large, and faultless cast (there are 21 named roles in this opera).
The character of each prisoner is painstakingly realised. It seems invidious to single out any performers, but John Daszak as Skuratov sings and acts as though his life depended on it. Robert Brubaker is a heroic Luka, and in the last act Andrew Shore adds yet another vivid character to his formidable roster of operatic creations in the role of Shiskov. The rest of the cast, as I said earlier, are faultless. The opera ends with the wounded eagle, which has been cared for by the prisoners, flying off into freedom, healed. The prisoners return to work as the curtain falls.
A remarkable evening in the theatre - at turns tragic, yet ultimately uplifting and certainly not to be missed.
Keith McDonnell, October 1997