The Makropulos Case

The Makropulos Case [Opera in three acts to a libretto by the composer after Karel Čapek’s 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-Šendorf – Graham Clark
Chambermaid – Susanna Tudor-Thomas
Cleaning Woman – Kathleen Wilkinson
Stage Technician – Graeme Danby

Orchestra of English National Opera
Sir Charles Mackerras

Director – Christopher Alden
Set designer – Charles Edwards
Costume designer – Sue Wilmington
Lighting designer – Adam Silverman
Dramaturg – Peter Littlefield
Choreographer – Claire Gaskin

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 May, 2006
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Although it has received several productions in Britain over the last two decades, “The Makropulos Case” remains among the lesser-heard of Janáček’s major operas, and has not received its share of critical or popular acclaim. Not that it lacks anything of the intensity or the conviction found in other works from the composer’s hectic last decade, but the tone – moving from quirky comedy to (near-)heroic tragedy by the close, without ever adhering to a specific dramatic genre – can be difficult to gauge or, indeed, sympathise with.

It helps not that Janáček, in freely refashioning Karel Čapek’s existential comedy of manners (as the author, from contractual but also personal reasons, bid him to do) omits much of the narrative tissue so that not only the actual plot, but also the motivation of the principal character, does not quite add up. Nothing, though, that a perspicacious director cannot overcome by aligning events and emotions so that the two combine to the benefit of the greater dramatic whole.

A task in which Christopher Alden very nearly triumphs – but not quite. His single-set design has the virtues of all-round visibility and consistency in terms of the overall mise en scène that enables one to focus on events as they unfold, and relate them to the wider theatrical context.

In Act One, this entails doing away with most of the clutter that so often passes for a legal-chamber setting, and emphasising instead the sense of uniformity – even conformity – that makes the arrival of a ‘free spirit’ such as Emilia Marty the more disruptive of unquestioned routine.

What works well here, moreover, succeeds spectacularly in Act Two – in which the ‘green room’ atmosphere becomes that of a psychiatric ward where the singer’s admirers all slavishly crave the antidote of acknowledgement from their heroine; Alden’s attention to detail ensuring that Marty’s contemptuous gamesmanship – to the point where she has secured her complete isolation – mirrors every expressive nuance from within the music.

This is dramatic thinking of a high order – not, unfortunately, sustained in Act Three. Essentially it comes down to the ‘net’ not so much closing in on Marty as falling around her, leaving the other characters – whether vengeful or bemused – merely to litter the stage like so much debris while she wrestles with herself over the desirability of another 300 years of life (she was experimented on with a life-preserving potion). An outcome that, by having Marty tossing the coveted formula around like flypaper at the close, is both inconclusive and – fatally – non-cathartic.

This is a great pity when so much else in the production – Charles Edwards’s starkly satisfying sets, Sue Wilmington’s unostentatious ‘period’ costumes, Adam Silverman’s equally unobtrusive lighting and Claire Gaskin’s deft and effective choreography – works to the benefit of the stage drama. At the close, however, one is left neither admiring of nor appalled by the heroine: rather dismayed that so commanding a figure and so fundamental an issue should be trivialised by so total a non-resolution.

Eschewing both its frequent highs and eventual lows, the cast assembled for this production is a fully consistent if not always inspiring one. Making her debut in the role as Marty, Cheryl Barker encompasses the part’s emotional extremes, without quite integrating them into a fully-rounded portrayal. The palpabledisdain of her first appearance is persuasively rendered, as also is the encroaching weariness when she veers between a longing for life and the desire for death. That Barker also has the voice for the role is undoubted, as is her ability to tap into the heightened lyricism that Janáček calls for in the climactic stages of each act. Lacking at present is that sheer command of the stage in the manner of Josephine Barstow or Anja Silja: singers admittedly much further on in their careers when they made this role their own – and yet without such magnetism, Barker cannot project the character to the extent that her dilemma becomes that of the audience for at least as long as the opera lasts.

As to the remaining singers, John Wegner is a forthright but thoughtful Prus – never (and rightly) quite sure of whether his battle of wills with Marty is to do with mere sexual supremacy or a genuine sense of attraction. Neal Davies is a compelling Kolenatý, forced to step outside the confines of his profession – and hence his mind-set – as he takes on board issues beyond even the complexities of legal statutes. Robert Brubaker copes very ably with the high tessitura of Gregor, never pretending that the character’s youthful recklessness is devoid of a certain opportunism, while John Graham-Hall is in his element as the vacillating and indecisive Vítek. Thomas Walker engages some sympathy as the still-adolescent Janek, but Elena Xanthoudakis seems unsure of whether Kristina is a woman out of her depth or without real depth of personality.

Graham Clark, though, twice steals the show as not-so-senile Hauk-Šendorf – his memories of her previous incarnation arouse in Marty her most tender feelings. Susanna Tudor-Thomas is a rather simpering Chambermaid, but Kathleen Wilkinson’s shrewish Cleaning Woman and Graeme Danby’s Stage Technician are cameos winning in their veracity.

As one might have expected, however, this is Sir Charles Mackerras’s evening in the way he renders as secondary the illogical aspects of the opera as stage-drama through the burning conviction he brings to the music. Utilising an idiomatic and never too grating translation of the libretto by Norman Tucker, and with a number of audible textual changes – courtesy of the critical edition as realised by Janáček scholar Vanda Prochazka (who contributes a stimulating article on Čapek to the programme) – that more nearly reflect the composer’s intentions at the 1926 premiere, Mackerras frequently secures playing of distinction from the English National Opera Orchestra: reaffirming that, whatever its inconsistencies along the way, “The Makropulos Case” is as singular and powerful an operatic experience as any that Janáček wrote.

  • Performances on May 20, 24, 26 & 30, and June 2, 7 & 9 (the last two performances conducted by Alexander Briger)
  • Box Office: 0870 145 0200
  • English National Opera

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