THE EYE ON CLASSICAL & OPERA

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Welsh National Opera performs Janacek's From the House of the Dead at the Birmingham Hippodrome (0121-622 7486) on 12 Jun at 7.15pm

It's surprising what a little success can do for the creative artist. Having laboured on the periphery of the operatic scene for most of his life, Leos Janacek's eventual hit with Jenufa spawned a succession of dazzling stage works in his final years, culminating in his last great opera, From the House of the Dead, based on the novel by Dostoevsky. Even then, that magnificent legacy was not fully recognised in England until the pioneering Janacek cycle by director David Pountney and the Welsh National and Scottish Operas.

That was over 20 years ago but still wielding the baton over From the House of the Dead in its present revival is conductor Richard Armstrong, awarded this year's Royal Philharmonic Society's conducting medal. "I never tire of the piece," he comments enthusiastically. "Returning to it obviously brings back memories but I'm never just resurrecting the dead, so to speak. The staging is still very immediate, very dramatic and so my conducting has to be too. It's always a challenge." Why? "Well, partly because the opera's so concentrated - 90 minutes without interval: partly, because of the extraordinary textures Janacek evokes, especially in the original orchestration which we use. There's such a wide range of orchestral colour, from squealing high piccolos to low groaning trombones."

"Creating the tension and sustaining it right through to the bitter end," continues Armstrong, "that takes some doing, but the WNO orchestra always responds magnificently to the score, as do the singers, many of whom come back to perform the work time and time again." And the audience? "Well, so do they. I think it's really grown on them, as has the music of Janacek in general. Twenty years ago one might have thought twice about mounting a 20th-century opera set in a Siberian prison camp. Now, there's no fear whatsoever of not playing to near capacity houses; and I think that's a credit to both Janacek's music as well as to what Pountney did with the piece. One really comes away from the opera house having not just seen an opera but experienced an event."

EYE ON THE NEW

Mark-Anthony Turnage has written his first stage work since his highly acclaimed Greek of 1988. The Country of the Blind, based on the story by H.G. Wells, receives its world premiere in an ENO Contemporary Opera Studio production as the opening event of this year's 50th Aldeburgh Festival at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall (01728 453543) on 13 Jun at 8pm

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