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  • Your Reaction: What did you think of Janáček's From the House of the Dead?

Your Reaction: What did you think of Janáček's From the House of the Dead?

Audience responses to The Royal Opera's hard-hitting new production of Janáček’s final work.

By Mel Spencer (Senior Editor (Social Media))

8 March 2018 at 5.56pm | 23 Comments

Press reviews:

Arts Desk ★★★★
Guardian ★★★★
Telegraph ★★★★
What's On Stage ★★★★
Evening Standard ★★
Times ★★

What did you think of From the House of the Dead?
Add your thoughts in the comments below.

From the House of the Dead runs until 24 March 2018. Tickets are still available.

This performance is staged with generous philanthropic support from Hamish and Sophie Forsyth and The Tsukanov Family Foundation.

By Mel Spencer (Senior Editor (Social Media))

8 March 2018 at 5.56pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged by Krzysztof Warlikowski, From the House of the Dead, Janáček, Production

This article has 23 comments

  1. JJ Butcher responded on 8 March 2018 at 7:08pm Reply

    With so much of the important narrative on the far left of the stage sitting on the left side of the house rendered watching it pointless. A total lack of respect to that part of the audience was perhaps the reason for the significant booing to the production team, I was almost tempted to join in. Not being familiar with either the score or the plot made not being able to follow the drama really annoying and spoilt an otherwise excellent evening.

  2. Michael de Navarro responded on 8 March 2018 at 11:28pm Reply

    Wonderful playing of a fascinating score from orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth

  3. Gareth Jones responded on 9 March 2018 at 8:04am Reply

    A mixed evening; the orchestra played well and the singing was generally good, although in a piece with few big solos it was sometimes difficult to discern who was actually singing at any particular time. The spacious and ostensibly well funded setting seemed rather at odds with the intense and claustrophobic character of the work

  4. Tony Bolger responded on 9 March 2018 at 7:07pm Reply

    I too sat on left side and missed much of the action. This couldn't -care-less attitude of directors and designers continues to spoil performances. My evening was ruined and I couldn't recommend this production to anything.

  5. Karen Wells responded on 11 March 2018 at 9:07am Reply

    I found the opera’s interpretation with its playing sexual violence for laughs - in the pantomime and Don Juan scenes - misogynistic. The long scene in which the murder of a woman by her husband is offered as an example of the spark of humanity inside even the most violent prisoner because he was upset that she cheated on him is nothing less than an apology for domestic violence.

  6. So in an opera which has no female characters the director introduces a prostitute, it seems every production at the Royal Opera has to have one. Please don't come up with some feeble "artistic" excuse, when will the Royal Opera wake up to the 21st century and stop the sexual exploitation of women in its productions?

    • Mel Spencer (Senior Editor (Social Media)) responded on 12 March 2018 at 11:37am

      Hi Martin,

      Thank you for your comment.

      The prostitute is a character in the original opera; the director has not introduced her to this production. The production does not soften the harsh realities of life in prison, nor does it soften the brutal attitudes of many in that environment towards women.

      We believe the arts should not shy away from challenging topics, and as the conversation on sexual equality continues, productions such as this will continue to encourage further dialogue and discussion about attitudes to women in society.

      Many thanks,


  7. Mark responded on 11 March 2018 at 3:41pm Reply

    Whilst I had read the book, this opera - plus anything by the composer - was completely unknown to me.

    I really enjoyed it, particularly the introduction and the first Act. I found the second Act lost it's way for me, but things were better in the last.

    It's a very peculiar piece, and not one to recommend to anyone for their introduction to opera. The staging on the whole worked for me, and allowed the many different things going on within the prison environment to take place consecutively.

    I was sitting fairly centrally, but I'm going to echo the criticism that has been made above, plus I wrote similar on my review of Carmen (the bit I saw until I couldn't tolerate anymore), and seems a feature. The director and stage producer knows the shape of the auditorium and has a good size stage, so why do they keep putting key activities on edges. This is extremely discourteous to audience members, and it doesn't matter to me how clever the stage producer may think he is, as far as I'm concerned it shows a lack of respect for the people who at the end of the day pay their wages.

  8. Jeff Monger responded on 12 March 2018 at 10:52am Reply

    I have experienced many wonderful and challenging productions at the ROH over the years. In the same week as international women’s day I have never seen just a misjudged stage production that completely lost the narrative in favour of reducing women to objectified sex dolls, alienating a large portion of the audience. Fortunately the orchestral production and singing was excellent, so like many others, who were looking at their watches with increasing frequency, I stopped watching and just listened to a great score and wonderful playing under Mark Wigglesworth.

  9. Patrick Hagglund responded on 12 March 2018 at 11:39pm Reply

    I found this production quite ghastly! Once more, the director feels he knows best and the audience needs to be led by the hand lest he/she does not follow the moral of the story - the screen projections, beating of Gorjancikov on stage, etc. All credit to the fine cast for putting up with a Dostoyevsky story placed in what looked like a modern-day US penitentiary complete with basketball practice in place of the eagle with broken wing. There is plenty more in this production to criticise but I will not bother to list any more points, save to once more deplore the current carte blanche given to regietheater directors. This opera is a masterpiece and favourite of the composer, but I will not submit to see this production again, nor to recommend it to anyone. More the shame that the music, the singing and the orchestra were all so fine in it.

  10. G Bull responded on 15 March 2018 at 1:41pm Reply

    Having enjoyed my own operatic journey during the 20 or so years I have regularly attended ROH performances, early 2018 is a desperately low point.
    In his pre-performance interview on Carmen, director Barrie Kosky took delight in pointing out that he would not tolerate anything which he regarded as ‘boring’. High kicks and high jinks ruled supreme in what could have been a deeply thoughtful and challenging Carmen for the 21st century. Instead, it will fall to another director in another House to give the world a Carmen for our time.
    And so, one week later, to House of the Dead.
    Director Krzysztof Warlikowski seemed intent on trying to shock for its own sake, with scant regard to the thrust and message of the work. The staging was overloaded with complexity. With multiple vignettes playing out simultaneously, with surtitles hanging high under the proscenium arch and with lighting so dim that it was often not possible to establish who was singing, the production was dire.
    Redeemed only by the sublime performance of orchestra, soloists and chorus I was left with the clear impression that those responsible for production values at ROH have completely lost their way.
    Full marks, however, for artistic continuity. Those tasked with providing catering services at ROH take pride in menus tailored to the performance. In the past, I have always found these to be excellent. For House of the Dead, cold tomatoes stuffed with oily rice and dried-out salmon were of a piece with the whole experience.
    I need a break from ROH.

  11. Robert slater responded on 17 March 2018 at 1:23pm Reply

    A lot of action on left hand side of stage totally invisible if you are sat in the wrong place. Willard White sat on a chair with his back to the audience for a good ten minutes. Perhaps the director should let the story tell itself rather than trying to force his own view on everyone with what was a chaotic and poorly directed performance. Music was wonderful though and singers let down by poor staging

  12. martyn payne responded on 19 March 2018 at 10:12pm Reply

    Can I endorse the criticisms made in the two responses immediately above; yet again we have extensive, tedious and tasteless stage 'business' upstaging the central dramatic development in a setting that involved crippling distortions to the opera. What is also curious, however, is the mismatch between much of the material in the programme and the actual staging; this production seems to illustrate exactly Mark Wigglesworth's point in his programme essay that 'If visual and dramatic choices have no audible origin the disconnect renders them meaningless' . Also, John Tyrrell near the end of his excellent article refers to the advantages of the surtitles but there must - at times - have been a considerable distortion of the original Czech [I am not thinking of justified clarifications where the original, such as 'General Cuckoo's army' would be meaningless] particularly near the end in what ought to have been the climactic release of the eagle.(Having swallowed so many camels I am surprised that the director baulked at the comparative gnat of an eagle in the prison - and what a farce all the shenanigans in the prison made of the double-page spread of the panopticon as no one could have been surveying this prison.) It is also, odd, isn't it, that while there are extensive passages from Gramsci, Foucault and Nelson Mandela there is nothing from Dostoevsky - or anything Russian at all - when there were many texts much closer to Janacek's opera such as Chekov's 'Sakhalin Island' or the extensive details quoted in Daniel Beer's excellent recent study 'The House of the Dead'. (It has a whole chapter glossing the term 'General Cuckoo's Army' for instance) And for 'universal' appeal surely the marvellous section 'First Cell, First Love' in Solzhenitsyn's 'Gulag Archipelago' is closer to the spirit of Janacek than the texts used? But one suspects that 'universal' is actually highly selective for the director and the upshot was a production that seemed oddly in thrall to American film and television - which for many people has become a kind of universal 'norm' but presumably THAT was not the 'universal ' intended. Of course, the concerns of the director are clearly humane and compassionate but surely it is merely a truism to say that if a work of art is used primarily as a platform or propaganda then it is betrayed - it is less universal. In particular the marvellous performance of Shiskov was ruined in this production and so that whole extraordinary, grotesque and tragic love poem that binds, for all their perverse contradictions, the three central monologues together to make the spine of the opera - the dependence of men on women - was lost. Many years ago I saw the Welsh National Opera production of this opera in London; its effect was overwhelmingly moving whereas this elicited form me a mere shrug, I'm afraid.

  13. John Ginman responded on 20 March 2018 at 8:50am Reply

    A visionary opera, a superb musical performance: we should all have been on our feet cheering at the end.

    Instead, a glum audience gave polite applause, and dozens slipped away before the over-extended curtain calls were over.

    I could see the whole stage clearly: disappointment gave way to dismay and then anger as scene after scene lacked dramatic focus. The natural world, so essential to Janacek, is excluded completely: no eagle, and no outdoor winter and summer settings. Instead we get basketball, and 'expressive' urban dance. Whenever we are trying to focus on one of the characters' stories, you can guarantee that something irrelevant will distract us. This from a director who claims he wants to 'focus more directly on Janacek's adaptation of the novel'!

    Pountney's WNO staging still packs a punch after more than 30 years. This one should be quietly sent to the recycling centre at the end of the present run. What a terrible waste!

  14. John Rose responded on 20 March 2018 at 10:47am Reply

    How I agree with others complaining not only about the production (too fussy,too busy), but also about poor use of the sight lines. Sitting in the lower slips left last night ,Gorjancikov's arrival in the courthouse and his release at the end were totally invisible:as was Luka's death at the end of Siskov's "story" in Act 3.

    This is poor. I recall quite a hoo-haa some years ago about a wall obstructing visibility in "Tristan" and ticket holders were rightly warned about it in advance. Something similar should have been flagged up here.

    As to the music, Mark Wrigglesworth conducted a tense,febrile performance and the orchestra responded in kind.. Personally, I would have like a little more warmth and glow,which the music does have. He reminds me a little of Lorin Maazel :fabulous technique .but not enough "soul" .

    Singing was uniformly good: but this fine opera was ultimately spoiled by yet another duff production.

  15. Robin Worth responded on 20 March 2018 at 6:04pm Reply

    I sat in the right hand stalls circle and saw it all, but wished I hadn't

    The production was incoherent and banal and typical of the Holten regime of Regietheater, by a director who chose to ignore Janacek's rendition of Dostoyevsky's theme

    This was a shame, as the expanded orchestra played beautifully and the singers were excellent

    And shame on the ROH for failing to fill the house, even at reduced ticket prices. I saw a couple of dozen empty seats in the Grand Tier

    So here is another flop of a new production and one which is unlikely to be revived and, to top it all, my comment comes on a day when we learn that there will be only 2 truly new productions next season (the other "new" productions have appeared first in other houses)

  16. Martin Russ responded on 23 March 2018 at 2:30am Reply

    By chance, I saw this production twice in a week (not something I have ever done previously). And certainly on the second viewing, the "drama" on stage made a lot more sense, and I was able to make sense of the opera as a whole (whereas the first time I thought it was pretty confused).
    The music was marvellous on both occasions, the orchestra brilliant, the singing excellent. And I must emphasise, I enjoyed the experience. But like others, I have got to take issue with the production; it was far too busy and unfocused, the rotating room was gimmicky, the bright antiseptic appearance of the penitentiary hardly did justice to the setting Janacek (or more correctly Dostoevsky) envisaged. Maybe the fault in part lies with Janacek (?) but the characterisation of some of the main characters seemed weak. This problem might have been overcome if the opera had been performed as an ensemble piece with a smaller cast. The producer went to the opposite extreme, so that there was frequently action taking place in different parts of the stage at the same time. Even from near the front of the amphitheatre, it was often difficult to tell who was singing, or where to focus one's attention.
    Lastly, I think there it is valid to question the appropriateness of invoking Foucault in relation to the incarceration and exile experienced by Dostoevsky and evoked by Janacek. Indeed, one historian concluded that in late Imperial Russia "Siberian exile represents
    the antithesis of the modern penal state as envisaged by Foucault" (S. Badcock). This leads me to wonder whether the director is really elucidating Janacek or just indulging in a separate intellectual fantasy of his own creation, importing a range of inappropriate references along the way?

  17. Hellema IBRAHIM responded on 23 March 2018 at 11:47am Reply

    I felt so unconfortable because of the violence to women all along the opera. I concede it is dated for gender representation as it has been written in 1930s... But it has been modernised in the prison with breakdancers, why not fitting the production with our modern standards? And if punching, hacking and pulling hair weren't enough, no female character apart a prostitute. It was so disturbing I don't see how I could recommend it to my friends when there's so much to see...

  18. John Goulden responded on 25 March 2018 at 1:07pm Reply

    The opera is a masterpiece and the playing and singing were generally very good. But this was the most disappointing of the dozen or so productions I have seen recently in the ROH. It suffered from 3 serious defects:
    The libretto and score are steeped in the Russian context. That mood was totally lost by changing the period and location.
    This is an unfamiliar opera, even for most of us Janacek-lovers. It needed a more faithful production, rather than the sort of remote director’s ‘take’ that is often desirable in familiar works.
    The production lacked focus. With so much side-business (reminiscent of the Met at its worst), it was often hard to place the main characters and even to identify who was singing.

  19. Simon Needs responded on 26 March 2018 at 8:43am Reply

    Sat on right side of auditorium and couldn’t see OR HEAR a lot. The orchestra were good but so loud that especially at the beginning I could hear the singers, which for an opera is dreadful. It is also so badly lit that one poor singer who had a long aria behind a metal grill could not be seen as there was no light on him. The set was cumbersome and threw sight lines. The curtain call was a farce with a huge cast and all taking separate bows, they were still trying to take bows when the house lights went up and the audience were leaving! What a laugh and moment of self indulgence. It was exceedingly boring and pointless. Later discovered the director also directed The Phaedra’s at Barbican, that explains everything. Another pretentious boring badly designed evening.

  20. David Gifford responded on 26 March 2018 at 3:28pm Reply

    It says something that Welsh National Opera's production from the 1980s, and revived to huge acclaim last year, totally eclipsed this dire production. Regietheater at its worst. An arrogant, and often gob-smackingly insensitive, director thinking he can impose his own, misplaced, interpretation on Janacek's final operatic masterpiece.
    Thankfully the musical values were high, though I thought the heart-piercing moments of tenderness - a wonderful characteristic of Janacek's music - often went for nothing.

  21. Nick Jackson responded on 4 April 2018 at 3:57pm Reply

    I think the ensemble and orchestra performed excellently in this production. It's such a shame that the soloists were overpowered by the staging. It was hard to tell who was singing at times and I felt there was so much going on on stage that the main focus of the opera got lost at times. I couldn't help but be repelled by the apparent misogyny. The music seemed to somehow get lost under all the heavy symbolism.

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