The Makropulos Affair – opera in three Acts to a libretto by the composer after Karel Čapek’s play Věc Makropulos [sung in Czech with English surtitles]
Emilia Marty – Ángeles Blancas Gulin
Albert Gregor – Nicky Spence
Dr Kolenatý – Gustáv Beláček
Vítek – Mark Le Brocq
Krista – Harriet Eyley
Baron Jaroslav Prus – David Stout
Janek – Alexander Sprague
Count Hauk-Šendorf – Alan Oke
Komorna (Chambermaid) – Julia Daramy- Williams
Stage Technician/Doctor – Dafydd Allen
Poklizecka (Cleaning Lady) – Monika Sawa
Welsh National Opera Orchestra Chorus & Orchestra
Olivia Fuchs – Director
Nicola Turner – Designer
Robbie Butler – Lighting Designer
Sam Sharples – Video Designer
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 2 December, 2022
Venue: New Theatre, Oxford, England
Welsh National Opera was instrumental in bringing The Makropulos Affair (completed 1925, premiered the following year) to attention in the UK when they gave one of its first outings here in 1978 and, happily, the company does more than justice to this thought-provoking opera again now in Olivia Fuchs’s new production. It sets each Act in more or less the correct setting called for in the original scenario, with quite opulent attention to 1920s detail in Nicola Turner’s designs.
As presaged in the video projections during the Prelude, time hangs heavily over the drama, with a different clock taking a prominent place in the scene for each Act – not quite surreally so, but the oversize timepiece placed in Emilia Marty’s green room for Act Two almost evokes Dalí’s painting The Persistence of Memory. The heap of roses left there by her fans also mordantly hints at the vanity of celebrity, though in this case it those admirers who come and go, whilst her fame endures across the centuries in which she has lived. The huge edifice of cabinets in the solicitors’ office of Act One embodies the bureaucratic torpor (like Bleak House’s Jarndyce v Jarndyce) through which the lawsuit at the centre of this drama has proceeded. And the capacious, glitzy double bed around which the final Act revolves eventually becomes the tomb into which Marty sinks at the end.
But it is left to Ángeles Blancas Gulin’s magnificent performance to render the freakishness of Marty’s situation, despondent and weary with the world around her after 337 years of existence, and dropping clues that lead to the resolution of the century-long legal case of Gregor v. Prus, not out of especial concern for the former (her direct descendant by an earlier member of the latter’s family) but more for the role it allows her to play in that drama – like those on stage she has created over the course of her long career as an opera singer. Blancas Gulin projects herself not as an operatic diva of caricature – though she certainly strikes a commanding figure – but as an individual wracked with psychological turmoil, issuing variously in a woody-toned, vocal inwardness more like a mezzo-soprano, and a more extrovert hysteria when dealing with the characters to whom, Lulu-like, Marty represents a dangerous allure. But Blancas Gulin’s remarkable integration of that conflicted persona within her strongly persuasive account overall, and searing monologue at the conclusion as she reveals her background, elevates the role to a similar stature as Kundry, also cursed to a life prolonged beyond its ordinary span and desperately seeking salvation or release.
Nicky Spence eloquently realises the part of Albert Gregor, expressing the probing but uncertain quest of the middle-class character in asserting his family’s long-running case against their aristocratic opponents, the Prus dynasty. David Stout is suitably haughty as its scion, Baron Jaroslav, until Marty shatters that confidence in Act Three, revealing that his son has killed himself, whilst Alexander Sprague vivaciously takes the role of that impressionable son, Janek. Mark Le Brocq is a splendidly droll, unphased Vitek, clerk to the unflappably serious Gustáv Beláček’s Dr Kolenatý, the lawyer charged with running Gregor’s case. Alan Oke makes a wry counterpart as the oddball Count Hauk-Šendorf, recalling his encounter with Marty some decades previously. Harriet Eyley makes brief but arresting appearances as Vitek’s daughter, Krista, in love with Gregor, who takes the decisive action at the end of the work to enact its central moral, as she destroys the formula for the life-prolonging potion and chooses instead to embrace all that life and nature offers in its normal, allotted span.
Tomáš Hanus’s conducting of the WNO Orchestra keeps up the urgent, dramatic pace of the production, not by merely racing through the music motorically, but with alert, almost nervous attention to detail that sustains the vigour of the dialogue and the stage action. The performance demonstrates how Janacek’s music consists not of mechanically deployed blocks of sound, but vital cells that grow and adapt across wider passages, ultimately giving voice to the positive, humanistic message of the opera. All the performers actively function in this, but it particularly helps that the player of the viola d’amore stands for those passages which Janáček scores for the instrument as a suggestive reminder of Marty’s origins in the Renaissance period. Overall, performance and production together so convincingly elucidate the work as to make the case for more regular outings on stage than it usually receives, as the equal of the composer’s more frequently performed operas.