FROM THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD | London, Royal Opera House

Based on Dostoevsky’s novel, Janáček’s final opera seeks to show “the spark of God” among men in prison. Conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, the gigantic orchestra (including hacksaw and metal chains) brings Janaček’s tonal and tuneful score to life, especially in the lengthy instrumental sections (featuring some stunning solo violin), performing as much of the story-telling as the cast.

With no fewer than eighteen singing parts (including opera royalty Sir Willard White), dancers, and a giant male chorus to boot, this ambitious ensemble work showcases no protagonist but allows the stories, traumas and hopes of the inmates to emerge and overlap one by one. Where the music is gloriously rich and inventive, Janáček’s scatterbrained libretto of reported violence and misogyny is unfocused. This is exacerbated by the visually confusing direction (Krzysztof Warlikowski) which sees the whole cast on stage — exercising, chatting, rebelling — for the full ninety minutes.

To call this new version of Janáček’s final opera a “new production” is an understatement. The Royal Opera have never staged this work before. World-renowned director Krzysztof Warlikowski has never worked at the Royal Opera before. Most importantly, this 2017 critical edition (John Tyrell) finally allows us to witness Janáček’s original vision (Janáček died before the 1930 premiere, where two pupils of his softened the orchestration and the ending).

At the opening night curtain call, loud boos rang out for the production team, followed by loud shouts of praise: this production is dividing audiences down the middle. Unless you caught the Welsh National Opera version a few months ago, this little-known work deserves to be heard live, so — musically at least — this production is a treasure for all Janáček fans.

Join the dead until 24 March 2018. Tickets from £6.

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