Janáček based his penultimate opera on a 1922 play by Karel Čapek, Več Makropulos
; the title translates either as the Makropulos “Case”, “Affair” or “Thing”. Even given his predilection for unlikely subjects this seems an odd sort of choice. Čapek was internationally famous for his plays RUR
— which gave to the English language the word robot
— and The Insect Play
was regarded by contemporaries as a conscious riposte to George Bernard Shaw’s cycle of plays Back to Methusaleh
which had premièred only a year before. Čapek attempted to deny the connection, stating that the basic idea for the play had been with him for a number of years. As Rodney Milnes remarks in his interesting booklet note, the denial fails to be totally convincing.
The Shaw cycle which therefore probably provoked Makropulos
in the form in which it emerged was a ramshackle collection of interrelated but independent plays. These range from a Biblical allegory — with dialogue that can still chill the spine — through a political satire featuring thinly disguised parodies of Asquith and Lloyd George, a sort of metaphysical whodunit, a social play of manners with a tragic ending and a ‘New Age’ science fiction romance before returning to its mythological beginnings. Its basic thesis, that the improvement of the human species can only come about through the elongation of its life span, was supplemented by a more implicit defence of Lamarck’s discredited theories of evolution at the expense of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. This is only really made explicit in Shaw’s lengthy Preface to the play as published. The cycle has rarely been performed on stage in recent times, and has never been filmed – although one might have felt that its blend of symbolism and allegory might appeal to directors of modern art productions. Nevertheless during the inter-War period it was regarded as a work of outstanding importance. Even after 1945 elements from the final scenes made their presence felt in the scenario for Tippett’s opera A Midsummer Marriage.
C S Lewis, in his 1938 science fiction fantasy Out of the silent planet
, actually put the final sentence of the play into the mouth of a scientist who is subsequently taken over by the Devil, not even bothering to acknowledge the quotation in the clearly expected knowledge that the reader would recognise the allusion.
Čapek’s opposition to Shaw’s manifesto was even more vehement than Lewis’s; and no matter how far this may have unconsciously influenced his handling of the theme, it is clear that the optimism of Shaw collided violently with the Czech playwright’s innate pessimism. Shaw had declared that an extension of human life would be attended only by beneficial results. Čapek, on the other hand, contended that an individual with a prolonged life would merely exaggerate existing personality disorders. His Emilia Marty is a really horrible character, by turns capricious, cynical, lascivious, careless, malevolent, egotistical and sheerly mischievous. It is surprising that Janáček found himself attracted by such a heroine. That said, the composer saw further than the playwright, finding depths of emotion and sympathy in the idea of the individual isolated from her contemporaries and – as a young girl – genuinely terrified by what was happening to her. At the end of the opera Marty’s music is transfigured as she offers the elixir to the young Kristina who rejects it in the face of the apparent consequences, burning the paper containing the formula. The warm radiance of the final pages goes far beyond Čapek’s negative viewpoint. Many productions, although not this one, show Marty suddenly ageing three hundred years at this point. In fact, there seems to be no innate reason why this transformation should occur, and there is no warrant for the grand guignol
gesture in the score. Here Nikolaus Lehnhoff goes one step further, removing all the other characters except Kristina from the stage to show the isolated Marty achieving a sort of transcendence which may contradict Čapek and indeed bring us still back further towards Shaw, but which certainly has a validity in the music that Janáček has provided. Janáček, who made substantial reductions in the action — not always to the benefit of the clarity of the plot — also changed the ending of the play. He had the heroine die where Čapek instructed her to break into hysterical laughter as the curtain closes. That would indeed have been an anti-climax given the music that has gone before.
Lehnhoff’s production of Makropulos
was the third in his series of Janáček stagings for Glyndebourne in the 1990s. All of them featured the remarkable singer-actress Anja Silja in leading roles. She is completely in her element here, exuding charm and passion in equal measure even when she is not wholly convincing as the siren who sexually seduces all the men she meets. The rest of the cast are excellent too. Čapek’s other characters are a rather unprepossessing lot – the money-grabbing Gregor, the proto-Fascist Prus, the pettifogging Kolenatý, the frankly gaga Hauk-Šendorf, the naïve and scatty Kristina, the nit-picking antiquarian Vítek and even the lecherous unnamed Stagehand. Janáček’s music gives all of them real life and enables us to identify with them. Mackerras’s 1980 Vienna recording on CD gave us a largely Czech cast, who were able immediately to communicate in the Czech language. Here we have a mainly English cast enunciating the Czech carefully rather than idiomatically but they carry off the text with perfect assurance and none except (possibly) native Czech-speakers need feel the slightest degree of concern.
Mackerras in Vienna had Elisabeth Söderström in the title role. It was the same singer who sang in the earlier Welsh National Opera/Scottish Opera co-production staged by David Pountney in 1978, learning the role in English in order to do so. That staging had sets by Maria Björnson with a vertiginous pile of documents in the lawyer’s office of Act One which provided a real coup de théâtre
. Here Tobias Hocheisel similarly employs massively accumulated documents –inconveniently stacked in a manner that would, one thinks, effectively preclude any reference to them. Regrettably the lighting lacks the sheer impact of Björnson’s vision – which most unfortunately does not seem to have ever been recorded for television. In any case the playing of the London Philharmonic under Sir Andrew Davis has more passionate swing than the WNO forces could manage. Brian Large, the video director here, was given the opportunity to record the production under studio conditions at the then new Glyndebourne house. He seizes the opportunity to indulge in plentiful close-ups and shots across the stage, but unfortunately these disclose the fact that the stacks of paperwork from Kolenatý’s office have somehow managed to find their way into the wings backstage at the theatre in Act Two. They are still lurking there during Act Three for no very obvious reason.
The singing, for all its lack of native Czech speakers, is really something very special. Silja, sometimes strained by the high notes, gives less purely musical satisfaction than Söderström; but her sheer dramatic presence inclines one to forgive her faults in the face of her total involvement. Kim Begley is a youthful and passionate Gregor, and his high notes in the first Act do not cause him any difficulty. Robert Tear gives a beautiful and rather touching character sketch of the dotty Hauk-Šendorf. The young Christopher Ventris is rather sweet as the naïve Janek and Andrew Shore manages the rapid-fire patter of his exposition of the legal situation in what sounds like impeccable Czech. Anthony Roden is clear and precise as the clerk Vítek, and Manuela Kricsak is delightful as his daughter as well as providing a good dramatic foil for Silja in the final scene. The only weak link in the cast is Victor Braun as Prus, who is visually convincing as the “old roué” but lacks the sheer malevolence that he really needs in the scene where he tries to blackmail the heroine into bed with him. His success, leading as it does to the suicide of his own son, is dearly bought. The offstage voices during the final scene are clearly amplified, which lends them an other-worldly ambience that is somewhat distracting.
In the past I have had occasion to complain about some of Lehnhoff’s productions, which frequently seem to fly in the face of what the composer has written into the score and the music to distracting effect. There can be no such complaints here, where he adheres closely to the dramatic intentions of Janáček’s indications; and even when he does depart from these, as in the closing pages, the results are both moving and effective. The picture ratio is only letter-box 4:3, alas, but even so this is a video presentation of the opera to cherish and the re-mastering of the original tapes has been superbly managed.
Since this video was originally released in 1995 there have been various alternatives available, although Archiv music currently lists only one, a 2012 Vienna production conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen with Angela Denoke in the title role. I have not seen this version, but the review in Fanfare
by James North described its directorial glosses as “weird”. North however preferred it to the Glyndebourne production, where he felt that Silja was too old to be convincing in the title role – for the reasons given above, I strongly disagree. At the same time if tapes do exist of the even earlier David Pountney production with Elisabeth Söderström, it would be nice to see them.
Paul Corfield Godfrey