Michael Tanner

Spark of the divine

With its new production of Janácek’s last and in some ways most intractable opera, From the House of the Dead, Opera North shows once more that it is the most intelligently adventurous company in the UK, using its money where it is most needed: not on elaborate and perverse staging, but on high-class soloists and a small but excellent chorus, and an orchestra that can rival any in the country.

With its new production of Janácek’s last and in some ways most intractable opera, From the House of the Dead, Opera North shows once more that it is the most intelligently adventurous company in the UK, using its money where it is most needed: not on elaborate and perverse staging, but on high-class soloists and a small but excellent chorus, and an orchestra that can rival any in the country.

With its new production of Janácek’s last and in some ways most intractable opera, From the House of the Dead, Opera North shows once more that it is the most intelligently adventurous company in the UK, using its money where it is most needed: not on elaborate and perverse staging, but on high-class soloists and a small but excellent chorus, and an orchestra that can rival any in the country.

The rise in standards since Richard Farnes took over as music director has been astonishing. As soon as the harsh, weirdly scored introduction to House began, it was clear that he has mastered Janácek’s idiom, or more precisely the idiom of this particular opera, as completely as those of all the other works he has conducted. The production, by John Fulljames, is almost flawless, too, and the only complaint I have is with the surtitles.

The opera is sung in David Pountney’s English translation, but the composer’s vocal lines are not sympathetic to comprehension, so surtitles are indispensable — all the more so since the prisoners are an intensely garrulous crew, and there is no plot. However, the larger part of the opera, and virtually the whole of Act III, is taken up with lengthy narrations by three of the prisoners telling the others of their crime; but when each of them begins, the surtitles migrate from the sidescreens on to the scenery, and furthermore give the impression of faint, handwritten printing, uneven and too transient, so that one’s efforts are nearly completely absorbed in trying to follow them.

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