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Opera review Dead end for Janacek opera

David Nicholson reviews From the House of the Dead at the Millennium Centre, Cardiff/Touring

AFTER two outstanding performances, the third opera in Welsh National Opera’s Russia series is a depressing and ultimately futile outing for Leos Janacek’s From the House of the Dead.

The Czech composer based his opera on the semi-autobiographical account of the life of convicts in a tsarist Siberian prison camp by Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky and, with the WNO’s Russia season supposedly part of the centenary commemoration of the October revolution, a Siberian prison camp opera is doubtless a political comment.

Janacek died before his opera was completed and so this version is based on how others thought it might have turned out.

The grim portrayal of prison camp life comprises a series of remembrances by unsavoury characters who deserve to be in prison for the misogynist and brutal crimes they have committed and the figure of nobleman Goryanchikov, incarcerated for political crimes, is presumably meant to be based on Dostoyevsky himself.

But it fails to work because he is peripheral to the action and the finale, where the brutal prison governor apologises to the nobleman as he is released, is completely and jarringly unbelievable.

Before the Russia season started, I asked the WNO why they had chosen these particular operas, how they represented the revolution and how they portrayed what they felt about the events of 1917.

I am still waiting for answers and perhaps this production provides them.

There’s nothing to redeem this shambling and depressing production, despite the acting and musical skills on display.

But others loved the performance I saw — best make up your own mind.

Touring until November 29, details wno.org.uk

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