Dostoevsky’s novel, ‘Memoirs from the House of the Dead’ is filled with darkness and oppression, a grim picture of a Siberian prison camp. Janacek’s opera of the same name and based on the novel, inspired some of his most exciting music, filled with the sound of chains, heavy tools, despair, pierced occasionally with what Dostoevsky called ‘a spark of God’.

The Royal Opera House's orchestra, with conductor Mark Wigglesworth, do full justice to the excitement and drama of this music which only recently has emerged in the form closest to Janacek’s conception. The composer died without making final revisions, leaving him at the mercy of well-meaning revisionists. So this event, a first production at Covent Garden should be (and was on the night I went) roundly applauded.

However the opera does present problems for the director, in this case Polish Krysztof Warlikowski. First of all there is no narrative. The opera opens with the arrival of a political prisoner and closes with his release but, apart from that, there is no attempt at a structure. There are fights, there are reminiscences, there is a (long) play within the play. Relationships emerge. The political prisoner, Alexandr Petrovic Gorjancikov, (sung by Willard W. White) takes under his wing the boy, Aljeja (sung by Pascal Charbonneau).

There is an impressive religious figure, a very active prostitute, a drunk, a cruel prison governor who orders beatings. There is an elderly prisoner, a small prisoner and a cook. There are guards who wear vaguely military peaked caps but don’t look too threatening. There are men who watch and men who are led away to work. The set is bright, lively, and filled with movement, particularly by a group of tumblers and a young man keen to get a ball into a basket.

The setting is a large gym with a moving room, built of glass which slides across the set and serves both as governor’s office and setting for the play staged by the inmates. I have not seen the opera performed before but it struck me as far more like a jolly version of an old-fashioned lunatic asylum than a prison. Although there are always places for open association in prisons, the most obvious miseries are the mind-numbing isolations of cells or, in some societies, the torturous over-crowding of dormitories. Gym, if provided, is an escape and a joy. The overriding sense is of confinement and threat, both by the guards and by fellow in mates. Space is freedom and in this production there is a great sense of space.

I have been involved with UK prisons for more than twenty years and I went to this opera expecting that my heart would be twisted by the cruelty of the prisoners’ predicament - as it is indeed in Dostoevsky’s novel. Unfortunately, Warlikowski who has brought his own team with him, seems to have gone for entertaining visuals, with the cast imprecisely choreographed. This gives no real sense of the black desolation and fear which is at the soul of every prison.

Interestingly, the Covent Garden programme, as always informative and well-produced, carries a great many photographs of modern, prisons, mostly in Europe. These are almost entirely empty of people - the reason, of course, is that photographing prisoners is usually forbidden these days. But the result is that, like the opera, there is no sense of men locked in and crowded together, often in filthy conditions. Where is a photograph of a wing of one of our Victorian prisons? The answer, perhaps, is that this is a co-production with La Monnaie, Brussels, and Opera de Lyon.

Obviously, my reaction is slightly untypical but I feel an opportunity has been lost here. It was only after reading the programme that I fully realised that the audience is supposed to come away exhilarated by the hymn the prisoners sing to freedom as they release an eagle nursed back to health. This failure may be my own or it may, at least in part, be due to the fact that this is a chorus work with no inspiring arias. But the singing is so good and powerful throughout that I would tend, once more to blame it on the vagueness of the direction.

It is a tribute to Janacek’s great music that, as I left the opera house, I vowed to find another production. But then the orchestra has never sounded better.

By Leos Janacek
Directed by Krysztof Warlikowski
Conducted by Mark Wigglesworth