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Wednesday 15 August 2012

The Makropulos Case at the Edinburgh Festival


I absolutely adore Janacek's operas, but even amongst these cherished works, the Makropulos Case occupies a particularly high position in my pantheon of favourites. The amazing thriller/sci-fi story and the themes it explores make it both exciting and thought provoking, and the score is one of Janacek's most urgent, gritty and terse, with moments of incomparable beauty and oddness. The beautiful little vignettes - the spanish madman, the "behind the scenes" at the theatre, the old diva harassed by obsessed fans, the young singer, the historical resonances - all add colour and life to the rather complex and otherwise quite dark and serious story, and although this isn't an opera about opera a la Capriccio, these winking details, and the fact that the heroine is an opera singer almost exactly as old as opera itself, give it a special charm and atmosphere all of its own. The final scene, where the heroine dissolves into death is breathtakingly captured in sound, and we feel her release in the almost Straussian apotheosis (Straussian in effect rather than in sound). It is one of my favourite things in all of music.

One difficulty with Janacek's opera is that it is only really the Emilia Marty that is a fully rounded, defined character, musically and dramatically. We see the world both from the perspective of her adoring fans where everyone is slightly dull and undifferentiated compared to her sharp brilliance, and also from her own perspective where the passing years have caused her to stop caring about other people, especially men. Living for three centuries has meant watching countless husbands, lovers and sons die before her; damaged by these experiences, she has become hardened to love and is now a tireless manipulator, able always to get exactly what she wants and she doesn't care at all about the consequences of her actions, acknowledging suicides in her honour with a dismissive joke and a sigh of irritation.* †

This choice of Janacek's has two consequences. The first is that the director needs to think very carefully about the myriad of ancillary characters and how to present them - should they be bland and similar, their passions and complaints irrelevant chatter, as Marty sees them, or should they be quirky and characterful but cruelly unfulfilled, each one a tale of personal tragedy, as they see themselves? Director Tom Kairns aims for the latter approach, aiming to delineate each as clearly as possible from the others, and if at times he doesn't quite go far enough in this direction, their fiery mood swings, impotent rages and bursts of desire contrast pleasingly with Emilia Marty's ennui and icy poise. There are incredibly telling moments too that register and resonate far more than usual, one notable example being the young Janek Prus, looking shattered and empty after being rejected by Marty at the end of Act II, being hoisted out by his father, the equally besotted Baron Jaroslav Prus, who then strikes up a deal with Marty for a night of passion in exchange for the document she so desperately wants. That Marty's power is so great that she can destroy a father's concern for his own child with a few words is here encapsulated with the greatest economy. In Act III we open with the post coital couple emerging from their bed, Marty now with dramatically greyed hair (wig removed), no longer desiring to keep up appearances now that she has what she needs.

The second consequence of Emilia being the only truly complex character, is that the singer playing the central heroine needs to have everything - not only a voice of immense resource and variety, but also a convincing and fascinating stage presence and significant acting abilities in order to be able to carry the show.    Ylva Kihlberg, a principal of the Royal Opera Copenhagen, is a much smaller voice than we are used to in this part - Janacek marks the part as for dramatic soprano, the only time he ever designated the fach of a part in any of his operas (Katya and Jenufa are usually cast as full lyric/spinto roles) - and indeed Kihlberg's other roles are all squarely in the lyric category. She also doesn't offer much timbral variety, and though the basic sound quite glamorous and attractive, it doesn't "open up" above the stave where it sounds a little constricted. Still, this is a respectable vocal effort for a role that is at least a size too large. Where she gets a lot of points is in her acting, her portrayal vampish, confident and laconically witty. She's steely still, but with more humour than what we usually see, and the sense that she's playing and having fun with these sadly enraptured men is brilliantly put across. In her rare moments of repose and reflection we see her for a second haunted by her memories, the things that have given her joy in the past, but which have become the cause of her spiritual death, before she regains control of herself and the situation. It's a gift of a part and Kihlberg rises to the challenge.

The opera is updated to the early 1950s from the early '20s of the original - Marty says she is 367 (or 369, she no longer knows for sure), rather than 337 as in the original libretto. The set is shadowy and moodily lit, with green walls and furniture demarcating various portions of the stage. Unfortunately, Hildegard Bechtler's sets are not quite stylish enough to frame the action in the film noire glamour that is being aimed at. It has been mentioned more than once that the mature Janacek's approach to opera is filmic, so it's a potentially interesting take that sadly doesn't quite come off here. The set for Act II is the same as Act I, but with furniture stacked and in disarray and wall panels shifted and rotated - maybe this was an attempt at some sort of meta-theatre (Act II occurs behind the scenes of an opera house), but if it was the idea wasn't developed. The clock is stopped in Acts I and II, just as it is for Marty, but in Act III, it races forward as she ages before our eyes. Overall, this production is a decent take on the opera, but isn't quite arresting enough to match Janacek's music.

The singing from all of the additional cast is good. Most impressive is Robert Hayward as Jaroslav Prus who's voice is rich and solid and suggests his character very well. Janacek tends to write a lot of tenor parts and Paul Nilon portrays the pathetically passionate Albert Gregor with impressive vigour. Everyone though is committed and accurate and the general level of acting is quite high. The English translation of the libretto is a good rendering of the original text, sounding always natural and conversational, and benefits from the lack of florid language in the original. In translation the piece is much funnier than usual, but Janacek's vocal lines are so indelibly, inexorably welded to the rhythms and meter of the original Czech, that one can't shake the slightly disconcerting feeling that something isn't quite right in the aural picture.

Unfortunately, the orchestra did not seem that comfortable with the piece, and though the general surge of the score was well put across, countless details of Janacek's quirky and wildly imaginative orchestration were swept over, or worse, just inaccurately played. Whether these things will improve as the run continues remains to be seen, but the orchestra seemed under rehearsed and often there were very significant balance issues, with brass and percussion completely overpowering in the climaxes. In the curtain calls, people cheered wildly enthusiastically for conductor Richard Farnes, but I'm assuming that most wont have been well acquainted with the score and were simply bowled over by its gritty sweep - that it might be even more wonderful than what was to be heard here means that there is surely still a treat in store for any who decide to investigate further.

*Her attitude to women is more ambivalent, and might be the subject of a whole other post.

† Of course we know that behind this, as with all Janacek's heroines from the 20's operas, is his beloved Kamila, captured here in the facet of cool indifference. In Vixen she is embodied wild, untameable folk creature, in Katya Kabanova, the passionate but crushed rural girl. That Janacek was able to transform his unrequited love for Kamila into the torrent of peerless masterpieces that he produced in his final decade, without ever becoming egoistic or narcissistic artistically is in its own way a small miracle.

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