The clue’s in the name: From the House of the Dead isn’t going to be a bundle of laughs. But Dostoyevsky’s experience in a Siberian prison camp changed him, not entirely for the worse, and Janáček’s music is by no means as dark as his libretto. In this first ever production for the Royal Opera, director Krzysztof Warlikowski treads a narrow ridge between two precipices: on the one side, to make the work unbearably bleak, on the other, to permit it to dissolve into a bland period piece without punch.

Nicky Spence (Nikita), Salim Sai (actor)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Warlikowski’s backpack includes several axes to grind. Firstly, there’s the late philosopher Michel Foucault’s view that prisons are counterproductive, oppressive instruments whose primary purpose is to permit a minority to enforce conformance – indeed, we spend the overture watching a subtitled interview in which Foucault expounds these ideas in a startlingly radical way. Secondly, Warlikowski comes across as being in genuine, personal fear of imprisonment, not least with the arrival of nationalist regimes with authoritarian tendencies in his native Poland and other countries: “Can any of us,” he asks, “claim we’ll never spend a night behind bars?” And finally, there is the more obvious point that prisons everywhere are the same, both as regards their environment and the behaviour of both screws and cons.

© ROH | Clive Barda

Małgorzata Szczęśniak sets the narrative firmly in our modern world: there’s football on a screen in the background, costumes are of today, some of the inmates are pumping iron or shooting hoops. A large, open-sided room moves fluidly across the stage at various times; its purpose is also fluid – reception, place of punishment, impromptu theatre. The action passes in a kind of blurred haze as each character emerges from the mass of chorus members, each engaged in their own activities, to tell their story. It all imparts a powerful feeling of prison as a living hell – a ghastly morass where time has stopped and all that remains are evil deeds – both present and in memories of how the prisoners arrived there in the first place.

Johan Reuter (Šiškov)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Powerful as it is, that blurring creates this production’s weakness: there’s so much going on visually that the characters become indistinct and we find it difficult to pick out details of the individuals. Worse, it’s very hard to concentrate on their music, which is a disappointment, because on the occasions that I did drag myself away from consideration of the oppressive dramatic atmosphere to the music and singing, it was superb. And no more so than Johan Reuter’s Šiškov, as he relates his horrific backstory as the enraged but cold-blooded murderer of the wife who declares to him that she loves another man. Reuter gave a truly bravura performance, the strength and warmth of his voice as persuasively sympathetic at the start of the story as it became chilling towards the end. There's an array of strong voices in the other roles, but the one that stood out from the pack, able to grip us from within the mass of people, was that of Willard White as Gorjančikov (the author proxy of Dostoyevsky’s novel). Nicky Spence produced the most notable piece of character acting as a swaggering brute of a convict. At heart, however, From the House of the Dead is an ensemble piece in which each prisoner gets a few moments in the limelight, which grants limited opportunity for each to make an impression vocally. Warlikowski’s approach exaggerated this character of the work.

Pascal Charbonneau (Aljeja), Willard White (Gorjančikov)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting of the score seemed solid enough, but did more to support the virtuosic way in which Janáček fits music to the natural rhythms and cadences of speech than it did to highlight the composer’s harmonic and melodic gifts or the intelligence of his orchestration. The music’s sparse textures are challenging in a space as large as Covent Garden, made all the more difficult to pick out by the level of distracting visual clutter.

I can’t deny the coherence of Warlikowski’s artistic vision or the power with which he projects it. But I would have loved a bit more sympathy with the music than he displays, and the busy nature of this production makes it a big ask for anyone new to the opera – which, I guess, will be the majority of the Covent Garden audience.