Welsh National Opera at New Theatre, Oxford.
A review by Julia Gasper
The Czech composer Leos Janáček based this opera on Dostoevsky’s dark novel written after his own personal experience of life – or perhaps we should just call it existence – in a Siberian prison camp. Sombre, grim and unflinching in its presentation of brutality and degradation, it nevertheless offers music that is extraordinarily inventive, exciting and stimulating. The range of orchestral sounds and effects is startling, the string and woodwind writing is innovative, and we do not regret leaving our conventional musical expectations and complacency behind.
“In every creature, there is the spark of God” wrote Janáček, and the opera does indeed nearly persuade us of this after some harrowing spectacles and much soul-searching. The prison is a dingy, decrepit and mono-chromatic place where murderers, political prisoners and petty thieves all huddle together doing forced labour and trying to avoid being bullied by the guards. So a lot of the music is sung by an all-male chorus, but Janáček makes up for that monotony by scoring the music so richly. The prisoners have their own petty quarrels, feuds and resentments, particularly when a gentleman, Goryanchikov (Ben McAteer), arrives, convicted for political offences. They jeer, taunt and ostracize him. The commandant steals his clothes and orders him to be flogged just to welcome him to prison life. This is very similar to what happened to Dostoevsky, except that he was subjected to a mock execution that was a more refined form of mental torture.
Goryanchikov attempts to transcend their predicament with small acts of humanity, such as teaching a boy inmate to read and write, but even that provokes more rancour and a violent attack. The little privileges that some prisoners can obtain are another source of resentment, mutual recrimination and violence. When Easter comes, the inmates put on a little play to entertain a panel of genteel visitors, and this travesty of a comedy is indescribably grotesque. The smugness of the spectators adds to the horror.
In the last act, two prisoners sing lengthy monologues in which they explain what drive them to kill. Luka (Mark le Brocq) boasts about how he murdered a brutal prison guard. Shishkov (Simon Bailey) describes how he was driven to kill his wife after she confessed she perversely loved another man, even though he had treated her cruelly. Both stories are sung movingly, and through these confessions, we come to understand what drove them to an act of desperation. By the end of the opera, the most degraded and inhuman figures are the commandant and the prison guards, whose casual brutality and contempt for the inmates is as horrifying as the latter’s crimes. The spark of God is harder to see in them than in any of the prisoners. 20th-century thought scrutinized the history of prisons as institutions that are a parody of society itself, but Dostoevsky had anticipated most of these insights a century earlier.
The eventual release of Goryanchikov, symbolized by the release of a caged eagle, allows the story to end with a spark of hope that is life-affirming.
My only reservation is that at many points the singing was overwhelmed by the powerful sounds of the orchestra. Perhaps this was intentional but it meant that listening could be a struggle. All in all, the conductor, Tomáš Hanus, and every member of the orchestra deserves great credit for this revival of a brave, powerful and unusual opera.
November 30th 2017.