'For life, I prize it as I weigh grief, which I would spare' Act III, Scene II The Winter's Tale
Set in a Siberian prison camp, From the House of the Dead is an immersive performance from Welsh National Opera that is simultaneously haunting and tender, hopeful and hopeless. Recounting the inmates’ stories as they explain how they came to be imprisoned, the production is formed from semi-autobiographical recollections of Russian writer Dostoyevsky, who himself only survived the firing squad as a result of a last minute reprieve from the Tsar.
Janacek’s choice of setting at first seems completely bleak until a dying eagle becomes emblematic for hope and freedom. The prisoners endeavour to nurse the eagle back to good health and the eagle soon represents Goryanchikov, a wealthy man that was sent to prison for ‘political reasons’. At the end of the play there is beautiful use of cinematography, with a flying eagle projected onto the backdrop of the set, paralleling how the wealthy man has been released from jail and can now enjoy his freedom. Although at first this creates feelings of joy, we soon realize that the other prisoners will remain in the camp which leaves one with a sense of hopelessness.
Although the onstage performance was spectacular, the real highlight was undeniably the orchestra. Conducted by Tomáš Hanus, the orchestra consistently evoked feelings of fear, sadness, sympathy and at times, humour. Situated below the stage it was often hard not to admire Hanus’ orchestra instead of the actors. This was not helped by the fact that, more often than not, the orchestra was far louder than the operatic stage singers, meaning that to fully understand what they were saying one had to look at the lyrics above the stage. Naturally this created a disjointed feel to the performance as instead of appreciating the singer’s voices and the musical content, I found myself reading the lyrics on the screen. However, this was only a small technical problem and it must be said that when the orchestra were playing quietly, the operatic singers were brilliant- especially Paula Greenwood who played Alyeya, a small Tartar boy.
All in all, From the House of the Dead is a fantastic production for those passionate about listening to a live orchestra. However the fact that the set remains the same throughout, combined with the need to read the onscreen lyrics, slightly takes away from the natural viewing pleasure one normally derives from such performances.