Magazine article The Spectator

Spark of the Divine

Magazine article The Spectator

Spark of the Divine

Article excerpt

From the House of the Dead

Opera North, touring until 3 June

Clemency

Linbury Studio

With its new production of Janacek's last and in some ways most intractable opera, From the House of the Dead, Opera North shows once more that it is the most intelligently adventurous company in the UK, using its money where it is most needed: not on elaborate and perverse staging, but on high-class soloists and a small but excellent chorus, and an orchestra that can rival any in the country.

The rise in standards since Richard Farnes took over as music director has been astonishing. As soon as the harsh, weirdly scored introduction to House began, it was clear that he has mastered Janacek's idiom, or more precisely the idiom of this particular opera, as completely as those of all the other works he has conducted. The production, by John Fulljames, is almost flawless, too, and the only complaint I have is with the surtitles.

The opera is sung in David Pountney's English translation, but the composer's vocal lines are not sympathetic to comprehension, so surtitles are indispensable - all the more so since the prisoners are an intensely garrulous crew, and there is no plot. However, the larger part of the opera, and virtually the whole of Act III, is taken up with lengthy narrations by three of the prisoners telling the others of their crime; but when each of them begins, the surtitles migrate from the sidescreens on to the scenery, and furthermore give the impression of faint, handwritten printing, uneven and too transient, so that one's efforts are nearly completely absorbed in trying to follow them.

Could Opera North please think again about this, which threatens to ruin the evening.

The almost all-male cast has, at its centre, the upper-class political prisoner Goryanchikov, beaten at the start, freed at the close. His dignity and agony are conveyed with extraordinary power by Roderick Williams, one of our most versatile and charismatic singing actors. But the long-haul prisoners are awarded portrayals almost as memorable, with Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts a stunningly painful Luka, whose expiring cries punctuate the vast narration of Robert Hayward's Sishkov. The eagle which, wounded, is tended throughout by the prisoners and which flies away at the end, an apocalyptic moment, is badly miscast as a dancer, Philippe Giraudeau. I remember vividly the WNO production, in which what appeared to be a live eagle took wing, to overwhelming effect. …

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