Janáček’s Last Opera Memorably Staged at the Royal Opera House

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, From the House of the Dead: Soloists, Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Mark Wigglesworth (conductor). Royal Opera House, London, 10.3.2018. (MB)

From the House of the Dead (c) Clive Barda
From the House of the Dead (c) Clive Barda

Luka Kuzmič – Štefan Margita
Nikita, Big Prisoner – Nicky Spence
Čekunov, Small Prisoner, Cook – Grant Doyle
Prison Governor – Alexander Vassiliev
Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov – Willard White
Guard – Andrew O’Connor
Antonič (Elderly Prisoner) – Graham Clark
Skuratov – Ladislav Elgr
Aljeja – Pascal Charbonneau
Šiškov (Pope) – Johan Reuter
Drunk Prisoner – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Šapkin – Peter Hoare
Prisoner (Don Juan, Brahmin) – Aleš Jenis
Prisoner (Kedrill) – John Graham-Hall
Young Prisoner – Florian Hoffmann
Prostitute – Allison Cook
Voice – Konu Kim
Čerevin – Alexander Kravets

Krzysztof Warlikowski (director)
Małgorzata Sczczęśniak (designs)
Felice Ross (lighting)
Denis Guéguin (video)
Claude Bardouil (movement)
Christian Longchamp (dramaturgy)

Astonishingly, this new production of From the House of the Dead is not only the Royal Opera’s first, but also Krzysztof Warlikowski’s house debut. Better late than never, I suppose, and past omissions are hardly the fault of the current regime. Another important first is presented in a first full outing for this critical edition of the work, including Janáček’s proper libretto, including dialect, Russian, and even, apparently, a little Ukrainian, as part of his own translation from Dostoyevsky. Such things matter, of course, although how many of us in a (presumably) largely Anglophone audience can, hand on heart, claim to notice them all? Some will, and I am grateful to my friend and colleague, Geoffrey Chew, who certainly will do, for having alerted me in the first place to the use of the new edition.

Ultimately, though, opera lives in performance. The conductor, Mark Wigglesworth observes in a programme note, there is ‘a curious tension in today’s operatic culture between the musical priority of the performers, which typically tries to be one of complete fidelity to the composer’s instructions, and a dramatic expectation that pieces are simply springboards for a director’s limitless imagination.’ Such a tension may prove productive, as here, yet it also requires deconstruction of its own, as indeed Wigglesworth proceeds to acknowledge. It is often in those cracks that one perceives chinks of light, or to quote Janáček himself, ‘the spark of God … “A mother gave birth even to him!”,’ perhaps ultimately thus even of redemption. In this outstanding performance and production, one of the finest things I have seen at Covent Garden for a while, the interaction between freedom and determinism, such as one might readily associate more with, say, Schoenberg, in Moses und Aron, comes to influence and be influenced by work, dramatic ‘content’, performance, and the oracular mystery of ‘opera’ that arises from the dialectical relationship between them.

It has been worth the wait for Warlikowski. Patrice Chéreau, in his justly lauded production, originally conducted by Pierre Boulez, but which I saw in Berlin under Simon Rattle, presented the work relatively straightforwardly, perhaps even in the very best sense ‘traditionally’. Warlikowski, however, offers a post-Foucauldian queering of the work, engaging in more explicitly conceptual fashion with power, ‘justice’, and ‘punishment’ in an age of activist and intellectual intersectionality. Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term, has always insisted that intersectionality was fundamentally concerned with power rather than mere identity; the line is not always absolute, of course, and identity will often prove a response to power relations, but we do well to remember that, especially when ‘centrist dad’ types – who, predictably seem to have hated the staging – as much as unrepentant reactionaries will rail against ‘identity politics’ and indeed against the very idea of intersectionality as well as the word. ‘Citizens of nowhere’, one might say, against ‘very fine people’; or is that our white privilege attempting to trump, as it were, deeper, more serious, still more violent problems and battles within society with our own? It is not either-or; that is part of the point, or should be. The coercive apparatus that sets us against one another, within and without formal incarceration returns us to Foucault, whom we see on film at the beginning, not only to have his ideas confirmed, but also to challenge them. As with Janáček and Dostoyevsky, we need them and yet have also moved on. In the agony of that alienation lies our drama too.

And so, alongside Foucault, we also see – and, perhaps more to the point, watch – actors and singers – what, if anything, is the difference? – at sport and not. Prisoners are no more the same than non-prisoners. Are we merely looking, or are we engaging in surveillance? At least indirectly we all are, and if our gaze is directed to the stage, we also know, even if we deny, that we are watching each other too. Anyone driven to distraction by the call ‘see it, say it, sorted’ on railway carriages over the past few months, will know how little it might take to have been incited by the ‘duty’ to bring to ‘justice’ so as to be facing such ‘justice’ itself, which as Foucault pointed out, was and always had been spectacularly unsuccessful in its alleged project of ‘rehabilitation’. In the contemporary American prison in which the action unfolds, the intense physicality and to us, most likely a largely white, bourgeois audience, the ‘danger’ of such, especially when as here non-white and/or non-binary faces crop up,  replicate or, perhaps better, recreate hierarchies outside of the system.

That places the arrival of Gorjančikov in an interesting light. To a certain extent he is ‘one of us’. We can probably imagine ourselves more as political prisoners than as some of the ‘others’, more as items on, say, Amber Rudd’s lists of foreigners than as murderers or drug dealers. We are offered a way in, but also a way to differentiate ourselves, as we do both inside and outside, to reaffirm our respectability, perhaps even to sympathise with or at least to acknowledge as ‘necessary’ the brutality we see on show from the prison officers – and hear in the chains of Janáček’s score. Are we ultimately ‘do-gooders’, or just armchair reformers, if indeed we care at all? Might we even extend that critique to the performance and to the work itself and to that redemptive claim, the ‘spark of God’, in which we so desperately wish to believe?

Allison Cook as Prostitute, Johan Reuter as Šiškov (C) ROH. Photo by Clive Barda
Allison Cook as Prostitute, Johan Reuter as Šiškov (c) Clive Barda

Other hierarchies recreate themselves, although not necessarily identically. In a world of often (although let us not assume too much a priori) toxic masculinity – Šiškov, after all, killed his wife, upon realising that she still loved Filka/Luka – where is the space for women? Their near-absence on stage is one of the many things that makes this work so singular in Janáček’s œuvre; the harshness of the score is not only a harshness of the tundra. Here Warlikowski doubles down, doubtless controversially, not only allotting the trouser role of Aljeja to a tenor, but revealing, or rather concealing, the Prostitute – still sung by a Woman – as a drag queen, heightening elements of the ‘show’ which, after all, lie at the heart of the play within a play here. Such, after all, may be one of the ways of dealing with prison life. Or is it, instead, a reassertion of male privilege, a banishment of women? It does not take long before our thoughts touch upon the repression of trans women, men too, not least again on account of their absence too. Is this all intentional? I have no idea, although I suspect that some at least of it is. The production, however, offers the space for such reflection; indeed, I should argue that it demands it.

All that would be diminished, or unachievable, were it not for a fine, committed ensemble cast – there is no room, thank God, for ‘stars’ here – working with so impressive a chorus, orchestra, and conductor. I find it difficult to believe that the opera has ever been better conducted than by Wigglesworth, who inspired the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House to the very top of its form. The sound world was just right, less golden, more steely than the Staatskapelle Berlin under Rattle. Yet it seemed to grow out of an emphasis upon specifics, upon details, upon those gnawing rhythmic and melodic cells. This was not an abstract ‘approach’ foisted upon the work, quite the contrary. Certainly one heard, or fancied one heard, the intimacy of connection between language(s) and music. That held even when the language we heard was not at its sharpest (not necessarily, I think, a matter of nationality). I am really not in any position to comment further and shall leave that to Czech speakers; I think, unsurprisingly, that I detected some variation, but would always have had to resort to the titles in any case. The richness of what even post-humanists tend to fall back on calling ‘humanity’ is on show here, yet so is its commonality, not least in resistance to oppression. Singling out particular artists seems more than usually beside the point, but Štefan Margita, Nicky Spence, Ladislav Elgr, Pascal Charbonneau, and delightfully, Graham Clark all made very strong impressions, as did Allison Cook as the Prostitute.

Here, though, more than ever, one remembered, saw and heard dramatised that oft-cited section of a 1927 report from the Czech newspaper, Lidové noviny. Dostoevsky’s novel had appealed to Janáček, and so it does to us, because ‘ “in each of these criminals there is a spark of God”. The new opera has no main hero. Thus its novelty lies in its collectivism.’ Is that not a collectivism we need as much as ever, perhaps still more so?

Mark Berry

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