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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
The Makropulos Case (1924)
Cheryl Baker (soprano) - Emilia Marty; Neal Davies (bass baritone) - Dr Kolenatý; John Graham-Hall (tenor) - Vítek; Elena Xanthoudanis (soprano) – Kristina; John Wegner (baritone) - Baron Prus; Thomas Walker (tenor) - Janek Prus; Graham Clark (tenor) - Count Hauk-Sendorf
English National Opera Chorus
English National Opera Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. live, London Coliseum, May 2006. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 3138(2) [66:24 + 59:19]

 


The operas of Leoš Janáček were by no means unknown in the English-speaking world before 1947, when Charles Mackerras went to study in Prague. Indeed, Rosa Newmarch had championed the composer’s cause so effectively that Janáček dedicated his Sinfonietta to her. Sir Adrian Boult, George Szell and Břetislav Bakala, the composer’s friend and pupil, all performed his work in Britain, well before Mackerras. Nonetheless, for him, finding Janáček was like finding a gold mine. He became the leading Janáček specialist in the English-speaking world. 

The obvious comparison to this recording would be Mackerras’s 1978 recording with Elisabeth Söderström as Emilia Marty, and a cast of leading Czech singers including Dalibor Jedlicka, Benno Blachut, Vaclav Zitek and others. Although that performance was sung in Czech, and this in English, language is the not the primary difference by any means. Indeed, learning the opera from the first recording is a disadvantage when listening to this one, because the first is so good. Söderström is magnificent, completely inhabiting the role as if it were second nature, no easy task with a role as unnatural as Emilia Marty. Söderström was also a Janáček specialist, singing all the major roles, much as Karita Mattila is doing so today. It does make a difference, because they seem to intuit the composer’s unique idiom. 

On its own merits, however, this recording is adequate, especially if you want a clear, no-frills English-language version. Indeed, Chandos is marketing it as part of its Operas In English series. This is a perfectly reasonable premise. In earlier years, Mackerras customarily conducted Janáček in English because this made it easier for English-speaking audiences to assimilate. There’s a long established tradition of performance in translation. Indeed, it was fairly common practice in the “golden years” of opera before the recording era. There’s no reason to be snobbish about translation, per se. Translations do change the musical line, but within reason, it’s not something to be condemned outright, especially by people who don’t know the original. In any case, there’s still so much to give pleasure. Were it not for Mackerras, the ENO and English translation, the operas of Janáček might not have the international profile they now enjoy. 

To a certain extent, the more spartan approach works fairly well in the first act, where the aim is to create an impression of sterility. The inheritance case has dragged on for a hundred years, but that suits a prissy mind like Vítek’s, who regrets the resolution of “such a fine lawsuit” and cruelly mocks Gregor’s fears of suicide. The endless litigation is a mirror of EM’s endless life, for her, it’s a curse. EM of course refers to the different names, all variants of her original name. She is Emilia Marty now, but was the Elian Macgregor whose descendant Gregor is. It’s fascinating how Janáček weaves the maze-like narrative, reflecting its intricacies in the score. In this first act, EM is depicted through small snatches of dialogue, filtered through the other characters’ perceptions of her. Moreover, each character subtly contrasts another: Janek’s youthful adoration contrasts with Count Hauk-Sendorf’s old man’s obsession. Graham Clark’s experience makes the character sound truly demented, but delusion runs throughout. All the characters are imposing their own ideas of what EM “must” be, but none know who she really is. The shrill, sharp-edged delivery here adds to the sense of deluded alienation. The tenors all sound like prototype Graham Clarks, which is quite perceptive. The tension continues in the Second Act, broken for a moment by a nicely-done comic scene between the stagehand and cleaner: Graeme Darby and Kathleen Wilkinson. 

But the focus of the opera is Elina Makropulos herself. Despite her talent, she’s weary of life, cynical and alienated. That’s why she’s lethal for innocents like Janek and Kristina. Yet her cold-heartedness springs from centuries of unhappiness. Janáček nicknamed the character “Miss Brrrr”, consciously willing himself to write more warmth into the part. “I’ll fall in love with her yet”, he said. As EM starts to face the truth, her personality, and her music, expand. Janáček wants a fuller exploration of the role, because it is self-knowledge that finally ennobles her, and it’s beyond the grasp of the other characters. This is where Söderström excels. Her EM reaches a kind of apotheosis, as she regains her humanity by rejecting the magic elixir. Eternal life is a false dream. Kristina is given a choice, but she, too has learned enough to know that she must destroy the formula. Although Cheryl Baker has sung Kat’a Kabanová, it would be unfair to expect her to compare with Söderström and Mattila. She’s certainly good enough, especially in the beginning where the coldness of the role counts, but at the end, what might be more convincing would be greater warmth and colour.

Nor is the English National Opera Orchestra anywhere near the league of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Mackerras himself, too, seems more focused in the earlier recording, which is a genuine triumph. The booklet notes are not specially informative, but this reflects the Anglo-centric approach. Karel Čapek is extremely important, even if Shaw might be better known to English readers. As a bonus, there’s an interview with Sir Charles Mackerras about his career in Janáček. Nonetheless, this recording is good as a souvenir of the long connection between Mackerras and the ENO, and benefits an opera house that deserves support. It’s useful, too, as an introduction to the opera. 

Anne Ozorio 

 


 


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