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From The House of the Dead - Welsh National Opera Review

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by ABC Writer (subscribe)
Freelance journalist with a passion for theatre, the arts, food and books.
Janacek's final opera brought to life
Leos Janacek never managed to complete the score for House of the Dead before his death but this Welsh National Opera (WNO) version is described as being as close to what the composer intended.

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A chilling tale of life in a Siberian prison

Performed as part of the Russian Revolution series of operas to mark the centenary since the event, I caught the production at Birmingham Hippodrome during the WNO's Autumn touring season.

The production is back in the wider Midlands at New Theatre, Oxford, on November 29 after the tour stops off at Bristol Hippodrome on November 16.

While it's a hard-hitting story set in a Siberian prison, the songs are not iconic favourites or memorably melodic. Rather, it is the grand orchestral music that overshadows the performance.

It's new but also a revival of WNO's original 1982 production, which has been given a slight reworking by musicologist John Tyrrell along with performance suggestions by Charles Mackerras. They give the orchestral soundtrack plenty of room to shine and there's even a long introductory section of music to enjoy before the stage is even lit.

This gives the WNO Orchestra, conducted by the company's new music director Tomas Hanus, plenty of opportunity to shine - and they do.

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Chains of the prisoners are used as the percussion

It's a three-act opera that is performed without an interval over 90 minutes. During this time we see a series of inmates explain their crimes or injustice for ending up in such harsh conditions.

Although it's a gloomy story, it is packed with riveting narratives on themes of loneliness, regret and despair. Many of the reasons why the men have ended up behind bars are due to lost loves, wronged women and horrific events that are retold through Janacek's signature tones.

The stage is carefully designed with multi-dimensional layers and space underneath that allow the prisoners to march around it in chains. That echo of chains is used menacingly as part of the percussion. It's a beautiful touch.

Within this set, there is time given to portray daily life at the prison from mining work going on underground, as sparks fly from unseen tunnels, to rooms where guards torture the prisoners. There's also a play within a play when the prisoners put on a show as part of the Easter celebrations.

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A carefully crafted set adds to the visual experience of the opera

There's always something to look at and visually, it's quite the spectacle. The only drawback for me was that I found the eagle video projections a little strange and not in keeping with earlier scenes in the opera.

Part of the plot involves prisoners painstakingly nursing an eagle back to health and early on, a moving toy-like bird in a cage is unveiled. However, later scenes involve huge video images of a real eagle filling the whole backdrop.

It would have been better to use one or the other rather than mix the two media forms.

Translated and sung in English, I also think the opera would have had more impact if performed in the original Czech it was created in or translated and sung in Russian, given the setting.

That aside, this new version of From The House Of The Dead is a memorably atmospheric, distinctive and powerful production supported with a glorious orchestral soundtrack.

RATING: 3.5 / 5

For information and tickets for From The House Of The Dead, visit the Welsh National Opera website.
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Why? See the final opera by Janacek
When: Until end of November
Phone: WNO - 029 2063 5000
Where: Birmingham Hippodrome and New Theatre, Oxford
Cost: From 14.90
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