by Rachel Beaumont

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Bet-hedging perils: From the House of the Dead at the ROH

From the House of the Dead
Royal Opera
Royal Opera House
Amphitheatre A76, staff Christmas ticket
14 March 2018
ROH page

The Royal Opera’s debut production of From the House of the Dead feels like a lesson on the perils of hedging your bets. I can see why it would have seemed wise to be cautious when deploying director Krzysztof Warlikowski, that you might think he needed de-risking by being confined away from mainstream rep or rep likely to be frequently revived. And I guess it can be deemed a successful strategy in that no one has been offended. But judged on its own merits I think this From the House of the Dead is a failure: an obtuse work with an obtuse director that feels like a missed opportunity on both sides.

Warlikowksi’s Lulu is enough to make me think he deserves his reputation as an opera visionary. It wasn’t perfect – sometimes excessively intricate, sometimes self-important – but its extravagance brought satisfying insight while maintaining dramatic cogency. I’m trying to say it was completely smashing and as far as I was concerned his UK debut was overdue. Similarly, it seems bizarre that The Royal Opera hasn’t touched From the House of the Dead before now, given its Colin Davis connection and the piece’s prominence on the concert platform.

But the two together? There is enough similarity between Warlikowski’s Lulu and From the House of the Dead that I feel resonantly confident in asserting that his approach depends on the narrative clarity of the opera. And there can be few operas that lack narrative clarity as definitively as From the House of the Dead lacks narrative clarity. This is a work that needs a director to assert clarity, by simplifying, guiding, focussing. That is so much not what Warlikowski is interested in doing.

Instead we have sideshows within sideshows within sideshows, back stories within back stories, so much happening and all so bizarre that I had no idea what was going on and no incentive to try and work out what was going on, because that was so clearly not what this production was about. And so I sat, bewildered. This is as someone who could see the whole stage; if I had been in the third of the auditorium unable to see the left-most third of the stage, where all the action happened, I might well have been less confused and less bored.

When you yearn for a concert performance, that must mean failure. I probably would still have been bored and annoyed in that blind third of the auditorium, because you know something is going on somewhere. No action on stage at all, though, might have enabled us to concentrate fully on the music-making, which was of a very high standard. Mark Wigglesworth and the orchestra seem to relish this piece, playing with vibrancy and urgency (although with occasional weird errors in the violins). The singing was uniformly excellent, tenor Nicky Spence standing out in another overdue debut, leading a cast whose commitment to the project could never be doubted.

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