In a promotional video for Opera North's new production of From The House of the Dead, director John Fulljames gives us two seemingly opposing views on Leoš Janáček's final opera- that it is “the most intense opera of the twentieth century,” but also a piece in which “very little happens.” Based on the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel of the same name, the opera is set in a Siberian prison camp and focusses on the daily existence of a handful of its inmates. Despite the thin threads connecting some of their lives, the opera is essentially a vehicle for the prisoners to tell their individual histories, and so it is easy to agree with Fulljames that very little happens. His statement on the opera's intensity is also worth consideration, given that what does happen tends to do so with great emotional depth.

Claire Wild as Alyeya, © 2011 Alastair Muir, Opera North
Claire Wild as Alyeya,
© 2011 Alastair Muir, Opera North

Having given up on writing music for the object of his affection Kamila Stösslová (Kátya Kabanová, The Makropulos Affair and The Cunning Little Vixen were all inspired by her) Janáček developed an almost obsessive interest in the Dostoyevsky story, plunging himself into writing a score that appeared almost illegible when it was found amongst his papers after his premature death. “Why do I go into the dark, frozen cells of criminals with the poet of Crime and Punishment?” read a note found in the composer's pocket when he died. “Into the minds of criminals and there I find a spark of God.”

The “spark of God” that Janáček was determined to extract from the sad lives of those incarcerated in the camp is immediately evident when the prelude to From the House of the Dead begins. Despite dark undertones and percussive suggestions of the prisoners' chains, it is packed with beautiful, soaring strings that make the heart swell and bring a tear to the eye before the action has even begun. Themes from the prelude continue throughout the chorus parts of the opera, and intensify when a lot of physical action takes place on stage. It is altogether more sparse however, when individual prisoners sing of their chequered pasts, with sometimes just a couple of instruments beneath the vocal lines.

The vocal parts of this opera, as you would expect, are hardly lyrical. The prisoners sing their monologues when hard at work or suffering from illness and so there are a lot of purposefully pained and uncomfortable sounds. Alan Oke (fresh from his performance as Old Man Marshall in the Royal Opera House's Anna Nicole) gave a particularly moving performance as Skuratov, and Welsh tenor Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts made a strong impression as Luka, a man charged with the murder of a prison governor. The performance of the night, however, was given by baritone Robert Hayward, who sang his character Shishkov's tale of matrimonial betrayal and murder with heartbreaking intensity and perfect diction (it was made all the more impressive by the fact that he delivered the whole monologue hanging from a ladder!)

The production also boasted tenor Ronald Samm who recently received much acclaim for taking on the title role in Graham Vick's hugely successful Otello, but his acting talents were called on far more than his vocal skill, and I found myself wishing he'd been given a meatier part than that of 'Big Prisoner.' Roderick Williams, recently labelled 'Britain's best baritone' by Opera magazine, was supposed to take on the role of Goryanchikov, but was 'indisposed' on opening night and replaced by Richard Morrison. Williams, who has enjoyed a long-standing connection with Opera North, was greatly missed. He had, however, told us to “expect the unexpected” in a promotional interview for the opera...

Perhaps the most unexpected aspects of this production were the visuals. A team of four designers worked on the various aesthetics, filling Dick Bird's stone and steel dominated set with clever symbolism. Through the lighting effects, Bruno Poet gave the stage an eerie opaque quality that played on the fear of the unknown, and turned a stone construct into heavenly clouds of hope that hinted at Janáček's "spark of God". Mick McNicholas's simple but effective projections of the libretto onto the props and set gave you the feeling that the terrible stories of these men were ingrained in the very fabric of the camp, and played on the idea of the illiteracy of some of the characters, whose stories could only be passed on through spoken (or sung!) word. Movement director Philippe Giraudeau contributed some of the highlights of the opera- most notably the play performed by the inmates for visiting dignitaries. Humorous, dangerous and physically demanding, this re-enaction of Don Juan's last night on earth combined graceful dancing with bawdy buffoonery and the fire-like lighting and bright red devil costumes gave an injection of excitement into an otherwise grey world.

Despite the strong performances and the intensity of Janáček's music, it's the visual aspects of Opera North's From The House of the Dead that transform it from an enjoyable production into a breathtaking one.