The Makropulos Case [Opera in three acts to a libretto by the composer after Karel Čapeks comedy Vĕc Makropulos; English translation by Norman Tucker]
Emilia Marty Cheryl Barker
Baron Jaroslav Prus John Wegner
Dr Kolenatý Neal Davies
Albert Gregor Robert Brubaker
Vítek John Graham-Hall
Janek Thomas Walker
Kristina Elena Xanthoudakis
Hauk-endorf Graham Clark
Chambermaid Susanna Tudor-Thomas
Cleaning Woman Kathleen Wilkinson
Stage Technician Graeme Danby
Chorus of English National Opera
Orchestra of English National Opera
Sir Charles Mackerras
Recorded at performances by English National Opera at the London Coliseum on 18, 20, 24 & 26 May 2006
Also included is an interview with Sir Charles Mackerras he talks with Rodney Milnes about Janáček
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: March 2007
CD No: CHANDOS
CHAN 3138(2) (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 6 minutes [timing includes 29-minute interview]
Operas sung in translation have long been something of a puzzle as one wonders how big the market is given the performed works are usually available in original-language performances. They might perhaps be purchased as a reminder of a particular event, or as a record of a particular individual performance or interpretation. They might be useful to introduce the work to someone for the first time. In this particular issue in Chandos’s “Opera in English” series we have a demonstration of the worth of such enterprises.
Sir Charles Mackerras has already recorded “The Makropulos Case” using the Czech language (in 1978), in his own performing edition that attempted to remove decades of non-Janáčekian accretions to the score. The orchestra on that occasion was the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the cast largely Czech, with the enigmatic heroine being sung by Elisabeth Söderström, who brought an unexpected vulnerability to the character of Emilia Marty. It became the classic recorded performance. Here we are presented with Sir Charles again, leading a performance of the score that has undergone further scholarly revision. Whilst his tempos are not very different, the timings for the acts are almost identical, the score sounds more spare and astringent and many of the composer’s individual orchestral effects come alive as never before.
The recorded acoustic helps as it is a little on the dry side, but this allows for amazing clarity. The English National Opera Orchestra is on marvellous form, the wiry upper strings, warm lower ones, and the chattering woodwinds always making their presence felt, and the off-stage brass interjections are well managed. The interpretation has sweep, swagger and emotion.
“The Makropulos Case” has a very wordy text. Janáček sets the words as conversationally as possible, and more than he had before. Without pursuing many well-rehearsed arguments for or against the use of surtitles in the opera theatre, especially when the text is being sung in one’s own tongue, this recording reveals the singers as all bringing the text over with wonderful lucidity. This allows the listener to follow the intricacies of the plot in a way that I do not think surtitles could ever manage and this brings a real immediacy to the listening experience. As this recording is a compilation of live performances there are the odd stage noises audible, but they are not very distracting and at some points add to the whiff of greasepaint. There is much to learn about the drama from this recording.
At the centre of the work is one of operas strangest heroines – a lady who has lived for 337 years, is currently an accomplished operatic diva, but who has lost almost all joy in life and love, and also any sense of what comprises acceptable behaviour. Now beginning to feel old she has embarked on a desperate quest to re-find the prescription for the potion of youth she drank as a child. It is a gift of a role for a good singing actress and has attracted many operatic scenery-eating divas before. It’s much harder to bring the role off on disc without the visual aspect – especially when the tapes were of a production that was not particularly acclaimed.
Here again the presentation of a live event brings dividends. Cheryl Barker manages the early acts with considerable aplomb where the character is only given occasional sentences but ones that allow her character to register in amazing depth. Her voice is attractive, sometimes appropriately hard-edged, and even if her voice lacks a bit of definition in the lower reaches of the role she manages to capture Emilia’s underlying desperation and single-mindedness throughout. She also captures her overall boredom with life in her extended scena of the final act. She misses, though, the pathos that Söderström revealed, and does not quite have the somewhat over-the-top theatricality and steely quality of Libuše Prylová on the Supraphon recording conducted by Bohumil Gregor, but she certainly steers a midway course with enough individuality and allure to bear repeated listening.
The other characters buzz around the central one like flies, although each is offered moments in the spotlight. Robert Brubaker’s Albert is more forceful than many and John Wegner’s bluff and proud Baron Prus registers as a strong antagonist. Neal Davies sings a clean and fussy lawyer with warmth and meticulous diction, and John Graham-Hall’s very individual tone marks him out as Vitek. Graham Clark turns in a rather dry-voiced and overplayed Hauk-Šendorf in a reading that came over better on stage. Poor Elena Xanthoudakis’s lightly sung performance as Kristina is saddled with some rather stilted translation, which she does with such precision and clarity that it makes her character a bit more irritating than she should be! Graeme Danby’s ‘mummerset’ stagehand makes much of little.
Chandos’s presentation is generous – full text, some photographic reminders of the production (whether one liked it or not) and, best of all, a bonus in the form of a half-hour conversation between the characteristically forthright, scholarly and entertaining Sir Charles Mackerras and his well-informed and gentle questioner Rodney Milnes. They discuss the conductor’s discovery of and long association with Czech music and Janáček’s operatic scores in particular, the UK performance history of the work, and the musical detail of the work itself.
These CDs are a must for fans of Mackerras’s Janáček, and also for those who wish to find out more about this curious but appealing opera.