Leoš Janáček’s final opera never promised to be easy listening; based on Dostoevsky’s novel set in a Siberian gulag, the piece might be difficult to digest at first hearing. It is a mosaic opera filled with hard-hitting, furious motifs and raw, dark themes, depicting the misfortune of several prisoners. However, as the opera progresses, it becomes clear that at the heart of it, Janáček’s opera is about humanity and compassion.

It is unfair to call Janáček’s score bleak, because it is so much more than that. The amount of colour, hope and simple beauty makes this opera truly gripping; it takes you on a journey and never fails to surprise you. Where you might anticipate hopelessness and heavy, overwhelming gloom, he suddenly lifts you up with light strings and easily recognisable, returning phrases. From the very first note in the Prelude, it becomes apparent that conductor Mark Wigglesworth not only appreciates the many layers and colours in the score, but also pays special attention to every fine detail, allowing us to enjoy the music in all its rawness and glory.

In contrast, Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging, although ambitious and impressive, often feels a tad too busy. It opens, amazingly, with one single inmate playing basketball on an empty court in silence, a calm before the storm, so to speak. What follows, however, is a lot of projections showing Michel Foucault, scenes happening simultaneously, performers pretending to be performers, brutality, sex, and violence. The lines between the real and the theatrical are blurred and redrawn, and events overlap, turning the opera’s mosaic and fragmented storytelling even more difficult to follow.

Despite this, there is something strangely compelling about Warlikowski’s production. Once the eye gets used to the often-hectic amount of action, one can appreciate Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s revolving grey cage that spills its reflection onto the auditorium like a shiny mirror box. Pops of blue and red delicately puncture the grey, bleak prison. Sometimes you feel you are seeing things you shouldn’t, behind metallic bars; other times grotesque and violent images are brutally forced upon you, and you can’t look away.

With only one female role, From The House Of The Dead features almost exclusively male voices and storytelling, but that does not stop Warlikowski from experimenting with gender as cross-dressing and the challenging of masculinity feature heavily in the production. Pascal Charbonneau’s gentle presence as Aljeja is spellbinding, and his chemistry with Willard W. White as Gorjančikov brings warmth and humanity to the piece. Most of the female presence is greeted with brutality; Allison Cook plays a prostitute who then stands in for every woman the prisoners recall, and she is passed around as a prop; at several moments half-naked dolls are puppeteered with no compassion. These scenes are hard to digest and feel almost a step too far in the wrong direction.

Above all else, the opera features some stellar performances. Johan Reuter’s powerful depiction of Šiškov, Nicky Spence’s animated Nikita or Ladislav Elgr’s compelling and dangerous Skuratov are only the few highlights of this dedicated cast, not to mention the Royal Opera Chorus, a punctual and powerful presence that is essential in painting this dramatic prison scene.

This is the opera’s debut at the Royal Opera House, and if you are coming to see it, don’t come for the plot; come to be swept away by the daring staging, the relentless energy of the cast and the truly captivating music.

From The House Of The Dead is playing at The Royal Opera House on 7, 10, 14, 19, 22 and 24 March

Photo: ROH, Clive Barda