Janáček is one of my favourite opera composers. When you hear his music, you know it is his. There’s a starry mysticism to his songs primed with delicate poignancy and melodic detail. His music can be emotional, deeply dramatic and dark, exhibiting a visceral quality, irrespective of the subject matter.  

The Czech composer created beautiful operatic works (Cunning Little Vixen; Jenůfa, Káťa Kabanová; and more). This week was the opening of the Royal Opera House’s new production of Janáček’s final work, From the House of the Dead (1927-1928), directed by the widely-known provocative director, Krzysztof Warlikowski. The Polish director is no novice to controversial opinions of his productions or booing. For a debut at the Covent Garden, Warlikowski got a bitter taste from the audience—it was as if the music belonged to Warlikowski and Janáček’s original score was simply an afterthought. Some may think otherwise, but I’m one of the few who felt slightly let down.

From the House of the Dead production image (C) ROH. Photo by Clive Barda

Janáček found inspiration from Dostoevsky’s novel, Memoirs from the House of the Dead. It explores the notion of the ‘spark of God’; a sign of humanity and compassion, found in all criminal minds and even the most heinous criminals. Warlikowski introduces recorded interviews of French philosopher Michel Foucault discussing his critical thoughts on the justice system, which were interesting to watch during the overture, yet the connection to the opera, other than being set in a prison, was rather tenuous.

Set designer Malgorzata Szczesniak’s crafty and slick stage impresses and transports the audience from Janáček’s Siberian prison camp to a modern-day prison with a basketball court and security gallery above.

Johan Reuter as Šiškov (C) ROH. Photo by Clive Barda

The opera is arguably an anomaly to other Janáček operas in that every member of the ensemble cast is equally important as the other —there is no protagonist. In the second act, prisoners share and reenact stories of their past; mimed plays of Don Juan and The Miller’s Beautiful Wife with body popping moves, theatre masks and red confetti hurled in the air to depict the unmessy blood splatter and faux murdering. Up until that point, I had connected strongly with the lofty music performed by the ROH orchestra, which included rattling chains, and the intellectual conducting by Mark Wigglesworth. Sadly this was all interrupted by unsavory scenes under the order of Warlikowski; unnecessary female blow-up dolls, pretend acts of fellatio and whatever happens in a prison. Immediately after that it became increasingly difficult for me to engage with the work.

During the two uninterrupted two hours (sans interval) of the opera, there were unquestionably spectacular vocal performances from Nicky Spence (Nikita), Johan Reuter (Siskov), Stefan Margita (Luka), and Sir. Willard White (Alexandr). Unfortunately, for my first time seeing and hearing the opera performed live, I was truly disappointed. Not everything worked.

Salim Sai and Jamal Renaldo as Actors, Jordan Ajadi as Dancer (C) ROH. Photo by Clive Barda

I welcome provocative ideas which could enrich and play an innovative role in a production, but I would argue that there are some things that can be insinuated. That includes a few seconds when the prostitute, sung by Allison Cook, looked as if she was about to be raped. (Yeah, delete that bit, please.) So voices tick, music tick, set design tick, yet overall direction fail. 

From the House of the Dead is showing until the 24th March, click here for more information on the Royal Opera House website.

(I paid for my ticket)