Determined aficionados of the Czech composer Leoš Janáček have cemented his place at least at the edge of the standard repertoire. Three of his operas—Jenufa, Kát’a Kabanová, and The Makropoulus Case—have enjoyed regular productions over the past couple of decades. More recently, this Janáček renaissance has focused on the composer’s final opera, the grimly titled From the House of the Dead, which enjoys its premiere production at the Royal Opera House this season. Based on Dostoyevsky’s eponymous novel, the opera is a plotless meditation on human nature when confronted by the inhuman conditions of prison and the psychological need to reckon with one’s misdeeds. Dostoyevsky’s inspiration was his own experience in Siberian exile, where he was sent after a psychologically jarring last-minute reprieve from execution for his involvement in a revolutionary discussion circle. Dismally treated by his fellow convicts for being a nobleman, and witnessing horrendous brutality and abuse, the sensitive writer was nevertheless moved by moments of humanity rising from even the lowest levels of existence to the promise of redemption.
These experiences are shared by the central character Gorjančikov (Goryanchikov), a noble political exile based on Dostoyevsky himself. In both the novel and the opera, he enters prison camp life with a sound flogging at the hands of the sadistic prison governor. Despite the other prisoners’ misgivings, they open up about their lives and crimes, their frustrated ambitions and paths not taken. Tutoring a sympathetic young criminal in literacy and witnessing genuine acts of kindness among barbarity, Gorjančikov detects at least a whiff of human goodness as the convicts heal a wounded eagle, which flies off just before the prison governor apologetically tells Gorjančikov he has been pardoned and is free to go.
For the Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski, From the House of the Dead departs from Dostoyevsky’s soulful meditations on the human condition to a provocative, if rather pedantic, challenge to our current notions of criminal justice. His setting of the opera is a contemporary Russian prison colony, with the convicts flashing modern styles, including Russia’s infamous but intricately symbolic prison tattoos. Their stage is the prison exercise yard, connected to the cruel governor’s office. Transcendent hope centers around a basketball hoop—when the opera opens to strains of despair, a convict fails to make any baskets. When it ends on its glimmer of hope, he suddenly sinks every shot. The contemporary affect leaves a strong impression, but Warlikowski’s indulgence in now-dated post-structuralist social theory obscures much of the original meaning. The musical introductions to Acts I and II feature larger-than-life projections of Michel Foucault arguing his infamous point that criminal justice serves the police and the judges as agents of society, and that criminal sanctions are ritualistic rites that allow the condemned to redeem themselves through conformity to communal norms. Whatever one thinks of this idea and its deconstructionist merits, it did little to enliven the work apart from attracting a stream of London hipsters whose overheard conversations displayed grating pretensions but embarrassingly little familiarity with music.
As an operatic work, From the House of the Dead is problematic. Premiering in 1930, two years after Janáček’s death, it sits at the end of the brief reign of expressionism in the art form, ushered in by Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905) but not lasting far beyond Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1925). The opera figures prominently among a bevy of lesser works by composers who labored in the same vein, some of which are now being rediscovered—Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s scintillatingly prophetic Das Wunder der Heliane (1927) is simultaneously enjoying a tempting run at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper after many decades of neglect. But From the House of the Dead’s very plotlessness precludes any memorable scene or musical number. Indeed, one could argue that operatic expressionism bloomed so briefly precisely because once the older conventions had been overthrown there were so few directions in which it could move forward that it simply became repetitive and stale.
Despite the prominence of Gorjančikov, movingly sung by the Jamaican baritone Sir Willard White, Janáček’s final opera works best as an ensemble piece. The near-absence of female characters depresses the sonority in a way that anticipates Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. Other standouts were the tenor Štefan Margita as the unrepentant murderer Luka, Johan Reuter as the malevolent Šiškov, and the foreboding Alexander Vassiliev as the prison governor. Mark Wigglesworth, who recently ended a brief and tempestuous tenure as the English National Opera’s music director, delivered a carefully considered reading of the score.