The curtain rises in silence: a prisoner is playing basketball, trying over and over again to hit the basket with free throws. Only then comes the music, an intense orchestral prelude, and with that, another vision: it is Michel Foucault, the French philosopher who has spent his whole life opposing the punitive idea of detention. There's a fragment of an interview, which poses a sharp question to the audience: “In your opinion, what function does a judge fulfil in society?”. From the House of the Dead, a posthumous work by Leoš Janáček based on Dostoevsky's experience in a Siberian prison, is an impressively contemporary play. On Tuesday evening, the opera premiered at the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome.

Štefan Margita (Filka)
© Teatro dell'Opera di Roma | Fabrizio Sansoni

Director Krzysztof Warlikowski, in Italy for the first time, sets the libretto in a modern prison, a room with grey and scratched walls, in which the detainees are in constantly moving in a frenetic as well as suffocating agitation. Are they or are they not, those people, being left in a place, deprived of any possible fulfilment? Everything on stage conveys a febrile intensity, an overwhelming power: there are moments of breakdancing, of metatheatre: the confession of one's crimes is being shown in a theatrical performance, with gestures and movements that assume, in the chaos, a perfect harmony. And here all of Warlikowski's artistry and experience is on display. And I cannot fail to mention the truly remarkable lighting work of Felice Ross.

From the House of the Dead
© Teatro dell'Opera di Roma | Fabrizio Sansoni

The staging is so impactful that it stands on its own, but the expressive power of everything that is on stage sometimes sacrifices the musical side and creates a disconnection between listening and watching. In a constantly moving stage, it becomes difficult to focus and concentrate on the music. The directorial innovations are however admirable: especially the idea of filling the pauses between the three acts with video interviews and the transformation of the injured eagle of the libretto into a character, namely the basketball player we meet at the beginning, who has been injured during a fight and will only be rehabilitated in the finale. It makes a very powerful symbolic alteration.

Leigh Melrose (Šiškov), Carolyn Sproule (Prostitute)
© Teatro dell'Ioera di Roma | Fabrizio Sansoni

The conducting of the young Belarusian Dmitry Matvienko is equally surprising. Although he sometimes risked overpowering the performers, his interpretation was incisive, rigorous, steadfast, and careful to bring out the details of a score that is more complex than it appears. Matvienko gave his Janáček a look that was both personal and close to the director's work. As for the voices, the entire cast was of an excellent standard. In particular, Leigh Melrose provided a magistral interpretation of the prisoner Šiškov, which was appropriately greeted by warm applause. Also emerging from the crowd were Pascal Charbonneau as Aljeja and Julian Hubbard as Skuratov.

Julian Hubbard (Skuratov)
© Teatro dell'Ioera di Roma | Fabrizio Sansoni

In Janáček’s choral story, each of the characters takes his space one after the other: Warlikowski’s staging emphasises the choral effect more than the individuals and this, at times, weakens the strength of Janáček’s and Dostoevsky’s story, which explores the loneliness, the anger and the sadness of each prisoner. Sometimes, therefore, the listener has to choose between the staging and the music.

Erin Caves (Big prisoner)
© Teatro dell'Ioera di Roma | Fabrizio Sansoni

On the whole, this From the House of the Dead is a compelling work. It is, however, a pity that in a so crowded staging, we capture so little of the humanity of the characters, which is precisely what we tend to forget when we think of a place just “as a prison”. At the end, it fails to fulfil its initial promise: to lead us to answer Foucault's question, which is as profound as it is relevant.