Janáček’s last opera, From the House of the Dead, is no stranger to opera schedules, but this season there has been a real boost in interest with the publication of an authoritative edition of a score that had been left in a somewhat fragmentary state at the composer’s death. Following appearances in Cardiff, Paris, London and Frankfurt, this harrowing depiction of prison life arrived in Munich in a new production by Frank Castorf, the director whose Bayreuth Ring cycle went from scandal to classic over the space of a five-year run that ended last year. Like the Ring, and his subsequent staging of Gounod’s Faust in Stuttgart, Castorf has again teamed up with designer Aleksandar Denić whose trademark revolving three-dimensional sets have become key to the director’s multi-layered presentation of drama.

<i>From the House of the Dead</i> © Wilfried Hösl
From the House of the Dead
© Wilfried Hösl

This layering is there from the start, with projected live film of superimposed subplots and dramatic asides being enacted behind the scenes. Never one to tell one story when two or three will do, Castorf rather overplays his hand here. What might work in the extended timespan of Wagner, where one has the expansiveness to take in parallel scenes and images, here complicates issues, given Janáček’s almost aphoristic concision, and makes following different strands at once all but impossible. The extreme came as Skuratov’s narration was played against a mimed monologue from one of the other characters projected on to a screen, meaning one had two sets of subtitles (one German/English, the other just in German) to try and read at the same time. And this was on top of the numerous external references Castorf throws at his audience, only a proportion of which might stick in a single viewing. We are also expected to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Russian history beyond that covering the time of Dostoyevsky, whose real-life experiences furnished the source material for the opera: thanks to reading back over the Bavarian State Opera’s Twitter annotations of its livestream of this performance, I learn of references to Trotsky among other political and cultural asides that I’m afraid I did not pick up during the performance itself.

Bo Skovhus (Šiškov) and Chorus © Wilfried Hösl
Bo Skovhus (Šiškov) and Chorus
© Wilfried Hösl

Yet Castorf also makes some pertinent points that pick up on ideas in the libretto. For instance, the idea of oppression, which is represented visually on the set with a tsarist eagle (state), a cupola (church) and a revolving Pepsi sign (capitalism) as symbols looming over the inmates. Another Castorf trope is birds and animals paralleling the human characters. Here he quite neatly conflates the trouser role of Aljeja with the prisoners’ captured eagle that comes to represent the idea of freedom in the absence of their own, and a cage of giant rabbits (Trotsky’s favourite pet, apparently) becomes a potent focus of some of the prisoners’ attention as the closing music reminds us of their inexorable incarceration. But when all is said and done – and more is said than is in the libretto, if one includes the filmed scenes and a brief spoken interpolation (in Spanish!) of text from St John’s Gospel – the effect was emotionally underwhelming, certainly compared to previous viewings of the work.

Peter Rose (Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov) and Evgeniya Sotnikova (Aljeja) © Wilfried Hösl
Peter Rose (Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov) and Evgeniya Sotnikova (Aljeja)
© Wilfried Hösl

But this wasn’t the fault of the musical side. Perhaps under Simone Young’s direction the orchestral writing sounded just a little ironed out in the playing of the Bayerische Staatsorchester, which was arguably too sleek and refined at times. The large cast, however, was exemplary, led by Peter Rose’s sympathetic and brutalised political prisoner, Aleksandr Petrovič Gorjančikov, Charles Workman’s compelling Skuratov and Bo Skovhus as Šiškov, whose long narration provides the searing climax to the work and salvaged something of the work’s power to move from the over-fussy direction.

Aleš Briscein (Luka) and Evgeniya Sotnikova (Aljeja) © Wilfried Hösl
Aleš Briscein (Luka) and Evgeniya Sotnikova (Aljeja)
© Wilfried Hösl
***11