Finding Freedom in Captivity: Z mrtvého domu at the Royal Opera House

Janáček – Z mrtvého domu

Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov – Willard White
Aljeja – Pascal Charbonneau
Luka Kuzmič (Filka Morozov) – Štefan Margita
Skuratov – Ladislav Elgr
Šiškov – Johan Reuter
Prison Governor – Alexander Vassiliev
Big Prisoner/Nikita – Nicky Spence
Elderly Prisoner – Graham Clark
Small Prisoner/Cook – Grant Doyle
Priest – Johan Reuter
Drunk Prisoner – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Šapkin – Peter Hoare
Prisoner/Don Juan/The Brahmin – Aleš Jenis
Young Prisoner – Florian Hoffmann
Čerevin – Alexander Kravets

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Mark Wigglesworth.
Stage director – Krzysztof Warlikowski

Royal Opera House, London, England.  Wednesday, March 7th, 2018.

For its first ever performance of Z mrtvého domu, the Royal Opera engaged Krzysztof Warlikowski, one of the most psychologically insightful, if possibly uneven, directors of today.  It was an inspired choice.  To fulfil his vision the house also engaged a cast composed of exceptional singing-actors.  What distinguishes Warlikowski’s work is the sheer wealth of cultural influences he brings.  So many of his stagings bring insights from film, art and literature.  As the evening was performed without intermissions, in the breaks between acts he interspersed the opera with quotes from Foucault, as well as testimony from a gang member as he ruminated on death and what it meant for him.

Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda

The sheer detail that Warlikowski brings to his mise-en-scène is staggering.  In fact, it’s probably impossible to take it all in on a single viewing.  The film being shown on the TV at the back of set (designed by his long term collaborator Małgorzata Szczęśniak), the constant movement, the guards ever present – watching.  Yet in doing so, what he manages to create is precisely that world of individuals living in the prison environment.  These prisoners are not faceless, anonymous bodies, rather they are individuals – each with his own backstory – whose life choices led them to this brutal place where their freedom was taken away and conventional laws and morality no longer apply.  In doing so, Warlikowski brings out the central tenet of Janáček’s work.  This isn’t an opera with a conventional narrative per se, rather it’s a work that exists in its own space, separate, without a sense of time, in which characters emerge from the mass to tell their stories.  I can understand why some may feel overwhelmed by this approach, not knowing where to focus.  Yet it feels all of a piece with this universe in microcosm, precisely because it brings home the multitude of characters existing within it.

Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda

Where Warlikowski’s vision also has tremendous power is in the way he allows each of his characters to search for freedom and resolution in his own way.  The curtain rises on a single prisoner, playing basketball.  As the first act progresses, he is brutally attacked by Nikita and left in a wheelchair.  We come to realize that he is in fact the eagle mentioned in the text.  Towards the end of the evening, we see him emerging from his wheelchair, finally finding freedom from his confinement and learning to shoot hoops again.  Similarly, another character finds expression for his frustration through dance, bringing beauty among the horror, making the most of limited space.  For others, finding relief became even more drastic – Luka/Filka finding his resolution through suicide.  I found it an exceptionally powerful piece of theatre, one that made me reflect on what it really means to lose freedom and still find a way to express oneself, to survive despite adversity.  In these bleak days in the UK, where we see both main political parties voluntarily taking our rights of free movement away, wanting to imprison their citizens on a rainy rock in the north Atlantic, Warlikowski’s staging felt immensely relevant and powerful.

Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda

It was superbly sung and acted by the whole of the large cast.  It will be impossible to do justice to every single performance, so allow me to highlight a handful.  The passage of time is evident in Willard White’s bass-baritone as Gorjančikov.  The edges are now frayed and the core of the tone doesn’t always come through.  His stage presence is, however, undiminished, lighting up the stage whenever he appears and fully encapsulating the nobleman unable to understand how he found himself in such a horrific place.  Similarly, Johan Reuter dominated the stage in Šiškov’s lengthy monologue.  His verbal acuity was astounding – the text and speech rhythms emerging with remarkable clarity.  His bass-baritone sounded completely healthy, seemingly defying gravity throughout the range.  The UK-based Québécois tenor, Pascal Charbonneau, gave us a mellifluously-sung Aljeja, the liquid tone fully illustrating the character’s ardent youthfulness.  There was also a nicely raucous Harlot from Allison Cook, sung in a raspy contralto.  Nicky Spence’s rustic tenor, combined with his bearish stage presence, lent an appropriately dangerous and intimidating air to Nikita.  Štefan Margita brought his impeccable diction to Luka, his tenor full of character.  The gentlemen of the chorus brought full and warm tone with good ensemble as they incarnated the scores of prisoners on stage.

Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda

While the production and singing were excellent, unfortunately they were seriously let down by Mark Wigglesworth’s tentative conducting and the disappointing playing of the house orchestra.  String intonation was painfully approximate throughout, attack was sloppy and there were frequent tempo disagreements within the band.  It sounded, frankly, as if they were sight reading the score for the first time.  Whether it was due to lack of rehearsal time or fatigue after last night’s Carmen cinema relay, these really are issues that should have been resolved in the rehearsal room.  That unique combination of soaring melodies and pulsating rhythmic impetus that makes the score so memorable fell flat.  The impact of this great staging and the excellent work of the cast was blunted by the fact that the orchestral contribution was so messy.  While first nights always display some lack of finish in the musical preparation, this orchestral contribution I’m afraid to say was far from the level that a theatre such as this should be offering.

Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda

A shame, then, because we were given such an insightful and intelligent production, sung and acted with dedication by the whole of the large cast.  I very much hope that the orchestra improves during the course of the run as, as far as the staging is concerned, it is probably the best production of anything I have seen in the time that I have been visiting this house, both in the universal excellence of the singing and acting, as well as the insightfulness of the stage direction.  That central message of making one’s own freedom in a world where it has been taken away, in a world of horror, where those around us don’t share the same values, is one I found exceptionally powerful, deeply moving and particularly cathartic.  It is a great piece of music theatre.

Photo: © ROH / Clive Barda

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