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From the House of the Dead
Music by Leoš Janáček
Opera North
The Lowry, 19 May 2011

House of the Dead

Like Fidelio, this opera is set in a prison and, while it is based on Dostoyevsky’s great nineteenth century novel, the action has been fast forwarded a fair few years.

Here we are in a Soviet labour camp, judging by the attire of the convicts and the guards.  What we have in essence is a series of monologues: each convict tells their tale, the story of how they came to be sent to such a Godforsaken place.

Besides these parables of the soul’s degradation, which are very much Dostoyevsky’s own, there’s a fair amount of brutality, the currency of commerce in prison life.  Again (as with the production of Fidelio), the set (a vast prison yard) and the costumes, as well as here the convicts’ tattoos, added to and even created the tenebrous atmosphere.  It was a place of torment, purgatory or a circle of hell, one of Dante’s choice resorts.

By far the greatest contribution was made though, as you might imagine, by Leoš Janáček’s score: it was anxious, nerve-jangling, fear-inducing music; and it set you on edge throughout, preparing and priming you for the dramas as they unfolded.

Not a happy, sunlit romance, then; in fact, quite the reverse.  All of it – and not only the malicious game of Russian roulette at the beginning – proclaimed: here, in this place, human life doesn’t mean very much.

This is a must-see production of a great opera, excoriating in its power to move you to pity.