Opera Review

The following review should appear soon at Opera Britannia.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Janáček’s strange opera The Makropulos Case is a curious mix of psychological horror and puzzling fantasy. Who is the central character Emilia Marty and what gives her so much knowledge of the affairs of others?

Opera North’s new production is a stirring attempt to showcase and make sense of a difficult plot which has naught for our comfort whilst taking us on a compelling and exciting musical ride.

All of the business starts in a lawyers’ office where legal minds have been kept in clover for decades trying to sort out a particularly complicated inheritance case. As the curtain goes up, lawyers and their clerks are trying to sort through piles of casework. Within this cramped, oppressive set, it felt as though all the boxes of papers and legal bundles are about to fall on everyone’s heads. A moody colour scheme – olives and jades was given some excitement with a classy lighting design by Bruno Poet. Strong shadows seemed to conjure up the feeling of an old black and white thriller. Costumes too seemed to place us in the early years of the movies.

Mark Le Broqc and James Cresswell put in confident performances as the legal team – clerk and lawyer respectfully. Even stronger though was Robert Haywood as Baron Prus. His expansive baritone was the perfect tool for declaiming the baron’s legal claims to property and inheritance that should have been sorted out years before. Sadly, this contrasted a little with Adrian Dwyer who was playing his son Janek. There felt to be something very easy and relaxed about Hawood’s voice, in contrast to the rather forced, narrow tone of his son. Janek dies an early death. We wept no tears for him.

Stephanie Corley put in sterling work as Kristina, Vitek’s daughter. She is a putative opera singer and like many a diva in waiting before her, Ms Corley flitted around the stage, a whirlwind of anxiety and emotion. Through all of this though, she managed to hold on to her voice and punch her way through her part with a delightful precision.

The male protagonist, Paul Nilon as Albert Gregor was confident and secure and a joy to listen to. He seemed to manage better than anyone else on stage to make sense of Norman Tucker’s sometimes rather ragged translation. Gregor needs must come to terms with falling in love with his great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother. (Or something like that – one started by thinking that Mr Freud would be a useful person to have around but ended by wanting a mathematician).

Comic relief was provided by Nigel Robson as an elderly count with whom the central character had an affair many years before. Robson stoked up the fires of passion and showed what a giggle one can make from a cameo role with a belter of a voice and a twinkle in one’s eye.

Amongst an otherwise well balanced cast, Ylva Kihlberg as Emilia Marty completely owned the stage from her first appearance. This central role is a tricky one for any singer. After all, she finally leaves us not with a consumptive cough but by aging 300 years before our very eyes. Such a transformation really does require a singer who really can act and Ms Kihlberg did not disappoint in that department at all. She was electric in the first Act where, from the moment she appeared, every other movement on the stage seemed either to be directed by or be a response to flashes from her eyes.

Vocally she was perhaps not quite so fearless. Within the plot, Emilia Marty (or perhaps EM, as she inhabits various personalities always with those initials) is an opera singer. Oh the irony if the person playing her is unable to quite carry the hopes and expectations of the audience. A slightly tentative first Act didn’t show off Ms Kihlberg voice to the best of her ability but as the score became richer as the evening progressed, so thankfully, she managed to find a greater vibrancy.

Emilia Marty, of course turns out to really be Elina Makropulos who was born in 1585 and who has been kept alive by means of a longevity potion invented by her father. The greatest drama of the evening came right at the end of the piece when the existence of the potion was revealed and was offered around the stage by EM to all those who had seen the anguish of her sudden aging. The men all refuse but young Kristina snatched it from EM’s hand with great flourish not to apply it to herself but to burn it forever. As she stood with a flaming page held aloft in her hand she looked for all the world like the Statue of Liberty. As the formula burns away, EM dies but even to her last breath it was clear that she was undecided whether she wanted to depart this life or live forever. The play is a brilliant judgement on our aspirations of longevity. Should we chose to extend our lives, we risk having seen it all, long before life leaves us. Freedom is only freedom when the expectation of losing it in death is both absolute and unpredictable.

Down in the pit, it seemed that Richard Farnes and the orchestra were enjoying themselves though did take just a little while to get into their stride. There was more energy and vitality about them by the end of the evening than there was at the beginning. Top marks to the brass for fulfilling Janáček’s not inconsiderable demands.

In directing this piece, Tom Cairns took relatively few risks. Sadly one interesting idea fell very flat with a very strangely timed curtain fall at the end of Act 1. The idea was to take us from the lawyers office in Act 1 to the stage of the theatre where EM has been performing. It was a very clever idea to try to introduce the scene on the theatre stage by having EM appear before an applauding audience and take her bows. The sound of an audience applauding had been recorded and was all ready to be played in the auditorium to give Ms Kihlberg something to curtsey to. Unfortunately the curtain had fallen too early in Act 1 for the audience to be sure of what was going on. Instead of greeting the first act with applause, when the music stopped rather suddenly, everyone looked at one another in complete puzzlement. Silence and then an awkward clapping was thus then followed by a recording of a much more appreciative audience. What might have been a coup de theatre if the stage could have been set very quickly, became rather embarrassing. Had the audience greeted the first act with rapturous applause and then EM appeared on stage to courtesy and take her bows leading in to the second Act which all takes place on a theatre stage after a production, the effect would have been simply stunning. One hopes that this rather clunky transition might be sorted out before the production hits the usual Opera North venues.

Notwithstanding this stutter, the evening gradually became something more rather than less of the sum of its parts. Janacek’s stunning score helps of course. As the chattering rhythms ricocheted around the pit in the final Act, all the singers were fully engaged and one felt that the production was running at full pelt. As EM declaimed to one and all the frustrations of living an extra three hundred years she became more and more fascinating. As she aged, she appeared to inhabit different characters – at one time appearing to channel Garbo and yet all too soon embodying a savage but frighteningly glamorous Mrs Thatcher. Chilling, and naught for your comfort, as I said.

Note to the Director: Brilliant idea having three prominent clocks on stage all counting towards midnight during the last act faster than in real time.
Note to the Stage Manager: All the clocks need to keep the same time thoughout.

Tick tock!

Rating: ★★★★☆