Composers: Janáček
Compositions: From the House of the Dead
Performers: Soloists, Bayerisches Staatsoper, Simone Young cond
Catalogue Number: Bell Air BAC173 (DVD), BAC573 (Blu-ray)

Frank Castorf horrified dyed-in-the-wool Bayreuth Wagnerites with his complicated oil equals power take on the Ring back in 2013, but the German director has serious credentials and Janáček’s From The House of The Dead plays more obviously to his socio-political strengths.

The opera, Janáček’s last, was adapted by the composer from Dostoevsky’s novel and it was not premiered until 1930, two years after his death. It’s one of the repertoire’s most neglected masterpieces, but set in Czech, and with an all-bar-one male cast it’s a nightmare to follow who’s who on disc. On stage, it’s possible to achieve a greater clarity, though it is still somewhat episodic with characters who tend to come and go. Castorf’s staging is visually stunning, especially Adriana Braga Peretzki’s vivid costumes, but with giant video screens showing imagery simultaneous to events on stage it must have been virtually impossible to follow live. As it is, camera closeups help enormously, and many of Castorf’s ideas are compelling (though his conflation of the one female voice – the trouser role of the boy Aljeja – with the trapped eagle is perhaps overly complex from a Freudian perspective. Still, better more ideas than not enough, say I. His is a quite rightly a violent world, full of homoerotic overtones, and the gut is duly wrenched.

Musically it’s superb. Simone Young leads the Bayerisches Staatsorchester in a tight, punchy reading of this gloriously colourful, if utterly brutal score. Among the excellent cast, Peter Rose’s combination of outrage, shock and despair in the central role of the political prisoner Gorjančikov is deeply moving. Aleš Briscein as the violent Luka, Charles Workman as the bewildered Skuratov, Bo Skovhus as the conflicted Šiškov, and Christian Rieger as the sadistic Prison governor are all first rate.

If Castorf’s multi-focused interpretation lacks the taut clarity of Patrice Chereau’s landmark production, it’s a timely reminder of Janáček’s dramatic and musical genius in this, his intricate yet visceral swansong.