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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Janácek, The Makropulos Case (new production premiere) : English National Opera, 18.05 2006 (JPr)


Conductor: Sir Charles Mackerras

Producer: Christopher Alden
Sets: Charles Edwards
Costumes: Sue Wilmington
Lighting: Adam Silverman



Emilia Marty - Cheryl Barker
Albert Gregor - Robert Brubaker
Vitek - John Graham-Hall
Kristina - Elena Xanthoudakis
Jaroslav Prus - John Wegner
Janek - Thomas Walker
Dr Kolenatý - Neal Davies
Technician - Graeme Danby
Cleaning Woman - Kathleen Wilkinson
Hauk-Šendorf - Graham Clark
Chamber Maid - Susanna Tudor-Thomas


Christopher Alden’s new production of Janácek’s The Makropulos Case opened at the London Coliseum on 18 May with his words fresh in my mind: ‘It’s the portrait of any person, who because of a relationship with their parents and the world they live in created a personality for themselves that is all about power and all about their control. The great tragedy in her (Emilia Marty’s) life was that she could never really be alive.’ Not quite as ‘in your face’ as some of his revisionist colleagues or even his twin brother, David, he advocates ‘If we’re trying  to develop a younger audience, then taking a modernist stance about it and presenting some connection to the art of the moment that we’re living in has more potential to engage people.’ He seemed the perfect match for his conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras, who has pronounced against ‘the plague of produceritis’ and who brought this work to the London stage for the first time in 1964: he also conducted the iconic David Poutney production in 1982.
So what did Alden do with it? During the angular and percussive overture we begin to see imitation marble walls and stage right a line of swing doors, with large lawyer’s desk, eclectic mix of chairs, neon lights and a blackboard which sets the scene in slightly different ways for the remaining acts as well. Costumes are post Wall Street Crash and from any 1940’s or 50’s film noir. When Marty enters she could be Norma Desmond from Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, complete with dark glasses and hat. This pastiche expressionist black and white film look extends to the greys and blacks of Charles Edwards’ sets and Sue Wilmington’s costumes and to the pasty looking make-up for the singers.
This is not an opera that requires you to do background research because the singers throughout Act I declaim everything you need to know at that point, and the ENO’s surtitles will never be more superfluous, because every word of Norman Tucker’s elderly translation was clearly understandable. There is little real action amongst all this declamation but when Dr Kolenatý mentions something about ‘childish nonsense’ he cowers at the front of his desk. Gregor rests his head of Marty’s lap as she sings of Elian. Dr Kolenatý’s assistants, who sit at the side of the stage, help the audience out by writing relevant names and dates on the blackboard, a device that recurs in Acts II and III. The act ends with Marty’s fans at the door with floral tributes for her.
Act II begins in the same setting, now flower strewn. Marty is now post-performance in negligee, now looking distinctly like Greta Garbo. The music in this act calms down a bit and from drawing out strained vocal histrionics from Marty and Gregor during their ever soaring lines in Act I there is a wonderful ‘cor blimey’ and ‘ain’t’ duologue between a cleaning woman and a stage technician. Both Kathleen Wilkinson and Graeme Danby deserve this special mention because they were so at ease vocally and raised a laugh reminding us that the original play the opera is based on was a comedy.  Otherwise it was all just a little too grim.
It was possible to count off the modern opera production leitmotifs – little eye contact, chairs, a character removes his shirt (there must always be one), people standing facing the wall and so on. The one thing the night missed was a chair actually being thrown over.



The staging was becoming more atmospheric and featured another excellent cameo from Graham Clark as Hauk-Šendorf recounting his affair with an Andalusian Gypsy 50 years earlier. Marty, who had mirrored Gregor’s pubescent love in Act I by staggering around the margins of the stage, now relives her Flamenco past to castanet-tinted accompaniment. More varied colours in the music allows the singers in this act to present sharply observed characterisations such as those previously mentioned and including the young singer Kristina (an enchanting debut by Elena Xanthoudakis) and Baron Prus’s son Janek as well as Jaroslav Prus himself. John Wegner’s Baron is full of brooding menace and all but twirls the ends of his moustache. Stripping off ready for action he comes back on stage ready to get his ‘reward’ for giving Marty the ancient letter she has craved all along.
Act III opens with Marty in a sheet on the desk and the Baron moaning how cold she was. He gives her the letter and then receives the news of his lovelorn son’s death. Hauk returns attempting to rekindle old passions, barking mad he ends up in a straight jacket at the back of the stage. Dr Kolenatý enters and Marty’s luggage is ransacked, revealing the evidence of Marty’s past lives. Marty is now grey-haired and nobody believes her stories of being born in 1585 and living for over 300 years. She is bonded to the letter with the formula for the elixir, only breaking this bond in her death throes when everyone realises she told the truth.
It must be noted, as Vanda Prochazka writes in the programme, that ‘the rehearsals for this production… became instrumental in providing a platform for exploring various readings of what we considered to be Janácek’s ‘final’ text’ – he is editing the new version to be published by Universal Edition. The production was also being recorded for release on Chandos records. It was all certainly in safe hands with Sir Charles Mackerras, and the ENO orchestra cannot have played so well for years: the brass, one of the foci of attention in these revisions of the score, was especially impressive.
It was a hard-driven performance and the singers would have benefited had the music been reined back a bit. The string - emphasised romantic moments never generated sufficient emotion for me and everything seemed rather cold, which was, of course, in line with the staging, which had no sympathy for Marty’s plight, apart from setting her up as a victim of an abused childhood in being forced to take the potion in the first place. She did love the older Baron Joseph ‘Pepi’ Prus, as Marty makes clear during her final outburst echoed by the regimented, almost robotic, chorus. We did not feel sympathy for her or for poor Janek who kills himself because he is infatuated with her. We were however in awe of Cheryl Barker’s vocal stamina and security as Marty: she was poised, if not quite entirely at ease with the seductive side of her character, and certainly there was no world-weary melancholia - she was manipulative and cold-hearted from the very beginning. This was her role debut as Emilia Marty and to my mind she has not yet sung the role into her voice: she was steady, harsh and commanding, but surely there should have been some sweetness in her singing, if not her acting?
Robert Brubaker was a sturdy Gregor although, like Cheryl Barker, there was a thinness of tone at the top of the voice. John Wegner used his darkly menacing baritone (he is an excellent Klingsor) to splendid effect as Baron Jaroslav Prus, and the rest of the cast made much of their relatively minor roles: Graham Clark, of course, Thomas Walker as the lovelorn Janek, a victim of his bully of a father, Neal Davies the wheedling Dr Kolenatý and the gangly John Graham-Hall his efficient assistant Vitek.
Go if you are unfamiliar with the opera or have never experienced Sir Charles Mackerras’s self-evident love of Janácek’s music: he is in his 81st year and unless he too finds the elixir for eternal youth regrettably there may not be too many more opportunities.

Jim Pritchard

Photographs © ENO / Neil Libbert 2006



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