Wow. I mean, blimey, wow. This was quite an evening.
Having previously watched a bit of The Makropoulos Case on DVD (the Glyndebourne set with Anja Silja), I had anticipated an engaging but rather abstruse work. In fact, sitting through it live, it is immediate, fresh and perfectly lucid. Which is not to say it doesn’t leave you with questions, but the narrative lays out very clearly all the material you need to debate them for yourself.
The emotional power of the piece is reserved for its closing moments. The Karel Čapek play on which Janáček based his opera is described as a comedy and, indeed, there are some quite wonderful comedic moments throughout, right up to the scene where Emilia Marty is doing her hair whilst Prus agonises over the Marty-inspired suicide of his son. I particularly enjoyed her opening line, in response to being told that Joseph Ferdinand Prus had died a hundred years ago: “Has he? No-one told me!”
But throughout there is Janáček’s systematic building of musical tension, the rhythmic pulses that slowly but surely ratchet up the emotional temperature. At the interval we all agreed that it was easy to forget we were watching an opera, so naturalistic is the pacing and word-setting. But that’s not to say that the music is incidental: far from it, it powers the drama forward and works an insidious magic as it bursts into lyricism to accompany the unfolding denouement.
The story of the 330-odd year old woman, who has lived through a succession of identities all seeming to revolve around the operatic stage and all featuring the initials E.M., sounds implausible for dealing with real human emotion. However, unlike some of Strauss’s fanstastical creations (one thinks of the mountainous Die Frau ohne Schatten by comparison), Janáček’s lithe, immediate presentation of words and underlying music mean that the scale of the show remains resolutely human. The potion that gave Marty 300 years of life is a device, but it never overpowers (symbolically at any rate) the human characters wrestling with its consequences.
Amanda Roocroft played Marty, and captured a flightly, lively and restless character, her coldness rooted in the mania that derives from someone of genuine warmth watching generation after generation die around her. It was an excellent performance and, if there are quibbles, her voice couldn’t quite ride out the orchestra on occasion, and dictioned suffered a little when the pressure was full on. However, this is relatively minor. There were certainly some quite testing passages in the third act where, to compound matters of diction and audibility, the sonority of the orchestra – all high woodwinds and strings – entwined with the sound of her voice. But dramatically, she was fantastic. I know that the ending is a little controversial but, for me, it worked powerfully. In the original libretto, the young singer Kristina burns the envelope with the secret in it, after Marty has died. Here, we had a rush of characters off the stage and Marty left alone, increasingly frantic in her ability to detach the paper containing the formula from her hand, finally managing it and collapsing. For me, it captured the claustrophobic loneliness of living on a timeline that no-one else shares. I’m sure others would beg to differ, but it felt entirely consistent with the broad run of the drama.
The other characters were all well taken, with special mentions for projection and clarity for Andrew Shore’s lawyer Dr Kolenatý and Ashley Holland’s Baron Prus. Shore rose to a fantastic condemnation of Marty to precipitate her confession and explanation. Peter Hoare and Christopher Turner were suitably morose in the roles of Albert Gregor and Janek, slightly more vivid relations of those male characters in Jenůfa and Katya Kabanova that are put upon by mothers and ignored by lovers. Laura Mitchell was bright and irritating as Kristina (in the right way!) and Morag Boyle deserves a mention for an amusing Cleaning Woman.
The production was fantastic, seemingly based around a theatre foyer, with a sloping row of doors on the right through which crowds of male admirers entered and departed menacingly. A blackboard was occasionally used to record the names, formulas, etc. of the drama by a detached silent chorus, in a way which served to highlight the complexity – and cold detachment – of the plot’s details. The lighting was atmospheric, with a huge curtain pulled across by the Cleaning Woman to slowly draw darkness down as Prus prepared to have his way with Marty.
The ENO Orchestra delivered fantastic warm sound, and kept the pulse of the music flowing as an incisive undercurrent to the drama under Sir Richard Armstrong. It was a fabulous evening, and the remainder of 2010/11 will have to produce something quite fantastic to knock it off its perch.