Janáček - From The House Of The Dead (Z mrtvého domu)

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Saturday March 10 2018

Conductor: Mark Wigglesworth. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Designer: Małgorzata Szczęśniak. Lighting: Felice Ross. Video: Denis Guéguin. Alexandr Gorjancikov: Willard W. White. Aljeja: Pascal Charbonneau. Luka Kuzmič: Štefan Margita. Skuratov: Ladislav Elgr. Šiškov/Priest: Johan Reuter. Prison Governor: Alexander Vassiliev. Big Prisoner/Nikita. Nicky Spence: Small Prisoner/Cook. Grant Doyle. Elderly Prisoner: Graham Clark. Voice: Konu Kim. Drunk Prisoner: Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts. Šapkin: Peter Hoare. Prisoner/Kedril: John Graham-Hall. Prisoner/Don Juan/Brahmin: Aleš Jenis. Young Prisoner: Florian Hoffmann. Prostitute: Allison Cook. Čerevin: Alexander Kravets. Guard: Andrew O'Connor. Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

Just as the ghost of Maria Callas haunts some roles, making life hard for her successors, it might be said that - for the relative few who must take an interest in such things - the ghost of Patrice Chéreau, whose production has circulated on stage and on video and was revived recently in Paris, hovers over Z mrtvého domu. London hasn't taken unanimously to Krzysztof Warlikowski's staging (I even saw a complaint it had been updated to the present day: what did they want? Crinolines?). Could he have known that quoting Foucault to the English is like waving a red rag at a bull? He might as well have gone the whole hog and quoted Derrida, supposing the latter wrote anything relevant. And, like my neighbour on Saturday night, critics I've read so far found the busy new staging - Warlikowski typically has those not singing doing other things, such as blow-jobs, in the background - distracted them from the magnificent music-making. Comparison with the monumental simplicity of Chéreau's production, a temptation hard to resist (some couldn't), is an extra bit odious. There was certainly a lot to see, and one performance just wasn’t enough to see it in - especially when forced to peer round the head of a very tall man sitting in front in the ROH’s inadequately raked stalls.*

The production is what might by now be called classic Warlikowski. Like Carsen, he and his designers have forged a recognisable style. During the overture, on the fire curtain, we see Foucault, smirking slightly in characteristic armchair-provocateur mode, his text on the role in society of judges and the police subtitled in yellow (this clip can be found in French on YouTube by Googling for “Michel Foucault - Surveiller et punir”). Later, instead, we see extracts from an interview with a young man I took to be a gang member - South African maybe, from his accent - talking about “scary” death. In this production, there are no actual breaks between acts or changes of setting.

The main space, once the curtain has risen, is the sports hall of a contemporary prison, with a basketball hoop under a glazed gallery at the rear and a bank of seats to the right against a wall of green tiles (reminiscent of the same director’s Iphigénie) and white-ish institutional paintwork. A young man bounces a basketball and practices shooting - as it turns out, the Eagle, or so it eventually seems: he gets stabbed in the leg during a scuffle and is in a wheelchair until the end, when he’s recovered. The prisoners, in various forms and colours of shabby tracksuit-type gear, many tattooed, lounge around on the stands observing their colleagues’ (sharply directed and executed) antics - comical, obscene, menacing, violent - commenting and catcalling, dealing (drugs) discreetly with the complicit guards in their neat, bulletproof black.

The customary glass cage or box, in this case the prison office, with eight rows of fluorescent lights suspended from the ceiling, utilitarian furnishings, a (signature) washbasin and some TV screens, floats in from the left and rotates as necessary, as required by the action. Alexandr Gorjancikov both gets beaten up at the start and gets his belongings back at the end inside it. In between, it serves,for example, as the stage for the operas-within-an-opera.

Not unusually, Warlikowski has some things and characters extend their duties to roles not outlined in the script (and words turn into plausible metaphors: the sewing thread in the libretto becomes a line of cocaine). Aljeja (Pascal Charbonneau here wandering a long way from Charpentier’s David et Jonathas), usually in a singlet and sweatpants, appears in cheap frills and lipstick to act the part of Luisa as Skuratov tells his moving tale: the opera has started early in the glass cage, now open-fronted. Things turn freaky, with masks, life-size (but not inflatable) dolls, transvestites, and wild African dancers, wildly made up, shimmying up and down poles. And after the fun has died down and with nothing more to sing, the prostitute, here in a cowboy hat, hot-pants and white boots, twirling toy pistols, still loiters on stage, to give the odd blow-job (as I said) to bored guards and in act 3 be Shishkov’s Akulka. Skuratov pensively pulls on Aljeja/luisa’s dress in the shadows between the beds. Chained to the washbasin by Shishkov, Luka/Filka slits his own wrists. And at the end with the “Eagle” out of his wheelchair and Gorjancikov gone, Aljeja stand alone and forlorn, bending his head, center stage.

Like Carsen, as I wrote above, Warlikowski and his designers have forged a recognisable style. Like Carsen, Warlikowski now, too, gets a lot of work in houses around Europe. It’s unfair, I think, to expect people always to come up with something new and fresh every time and an artist certainly has the right to develop a distinctive style. But I’m afraid that, like Carsen, although these shows are still convincing “total art” events, impeccably crafted and with flawless, modern acting, Warlikowski risks slipping into a system - with tics - and losing some of the magical, revelatory inventiveness of his early productions. I’ve never seen anything since by Carsen as spellbinding as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Warlikowski has not, for me, recently equalled his Makropoulos Affair or his Parsifal (scandalously discarded by the Paris Opera after one run and now replaced). Fellatio in the background is now corny: that was a mistake.

The orchestra had a rounder, denser, more compact sound than in Paris, less elegantly detailed, with more emphasis on the dissonances - plus some unusual acoustic effects, as certain instruments were up in the boxes beside the stage. Several of the singers were the same. There’s no point in singling out one or the other or regretting that any particular one from Paris was missing in London. This was a great performance of a gorgeous score - which is exactly why my neighbour complained of being distracted throughout by the staging. I would like, though, in fact to pay special tribute to Štefan Margita, someone I’ve admired over thea years since Paris’s War and Peace, who was on fantastic form - both singing and acting - on Saturday night.

*This is a co-production with Brussels and Lyon, so opportunity should eventually knock for me to see it again.

Talking of Maria Callas... Until Maestro Wenarto gets round to this piece, we have to make do with his Jenufa.