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Amanda Roocroft as Emilia Marty [Photo by Neil Libbert courtesy of English National Opera]
23 Sep 2010

The Makropulos Case at ENO

In their programme note, Christopher Alden and Peter Littlefield explain the concept which informs this dark, dystopian production of Janáček’s penultimate opera, The Makropulos Case — a production first seen at ENO in 2004:

Leoš Janáček: The Makropulos Case

Emilia Marty: Amanda Roocroft; Dr Kolenatý: Andrew Shore; Albert Gregor: Peter Hoare; Vitek: Alasdair Elliott; Kristina: Laura Mitchell; Jaroslav Prus: Ashley Holland; Janek: Christopher Turner; Hauk-Šendorf: Ryland Davies; Cleaning Woman: Morag Boyle; Stage Technician: William Robert Allenby; Chambermaid: Susanna Tudor-Thomas. Conductor: Richard Armstrong. Director: Christopher Alden. Set designer: Charles Edwards. Costume designer: Sue Willmington. Lighting designer: Adam Silverman. Choreographer: Clare Glaskin. English Nation Opera, Coliseum, London. Monday 20th September 2010.

Above: Amanda Roocroft as Emilia Marty

All photos by Neil Libbert courtesy of English National Opera

 

“The Makropulos formula is a powerful metaphor for a fixation … The moment Elina drinks it, she becomes an outlaw … But the story of The Makropulos Case is not simply a personal one. It extends to an idea about society’s rigid, collective destructiveness. Karel Čapek and Leoš Janáček lived in a time of agonizing transition. For them the 327-year old E. M. embodied the unwillingness of the past to give way to the present. She stands for a society living beyond its moment.”

Charles Edwards’ striking set designs certainly capture this conception; evoking the grim austerity of the pre-war Eastern Block, the single set serves as lawyer’s office, theatre and boudoir, its forbidding monochrome tones alleviated solely by the copious flowers which decorate the Act 2 stage, offered in adulation by Emilia Marty’s chorus of idolising worshippers. But, this ‘abstract’ and emblematic reading, is a long way from Karel Čapek’s original philosophical comedy, from which Janáček constructed his own libretto. And, while its certainly true that the music considerably darkens the hues of Čapek’s social satire and irony, this extraordinary opera surely remains at core a very human drama, not least because the tale of obsession and passion seems permeated by the aging composer’s own unrequited love for the young Kamilla Stösslova.

Man’s helplessness in the face of the inevitable and irrevocable passing of time is a powerful theme in the work, and one which here is visually reinforced by the interminable rise of the curtain in Act 1, the protracted turning of the large wall-clock’s hands, and the legal clerks’ leisurely gathering of the documents which flutter from the ceiling, falling in scattered heaps which emphasise the convoluted, ceaseless complexities of the eponymous law suit. Alden and Edwards — with their over-sized black desk and leather chair, and the flurry of annotations strewn across the blackboard which looms on the office wall — have sought to recreate an ambience of Kafkaesque menace and ambiguity, as the action lurches between stagnation and frenzied confusion.

Indeed, such conflicts of tempo are built into the score, which swings between static, fragmentary ostinatos and sudden orchestral outbursts; however, underpinning the staggers and sways, is a steadily accumulating rhythmic tension as the minutes of E.M.’s life tick unstoppably by.

Amanda Roocroft, tackling the role for the first time, was a cold, calculating Elina Makropulos in her latest incarnation as the opera star, Emilia Marty. Passionless and solipsistic, Roocroft’s stylised expressionist gestures recalled the faux agonies of a Twenties starlet of the silent screen. A convincingly cruel and callous femme fatale, it is not entirely evident, however, why she should be so hypnotically alluring to all men. Marching briskly about the stage, Roocroft conveyed Elina’s nervous energy but somewhat lacked voluptuous allure. Roocroft took a little time to settle, not quite finding the requisite opulent sensuousness in opening Act; moreover, her diction lacked clarity (although the translation did not always merit better – ill-judged comic one-liners and anachronistic phrases such as ‘Cor blimey’ hardly seemed in keeping with Alden’s and Edwards’ focused period vision). As the opera progressed, warmth and depth increasingly characterised her tone, and Roocroft released a soaring soprano of considerable beauty and power in the final act, as Elina recalls and is humanised by her love for Pepi, the man whose actions have given rise to the epic law case which has controlled and consumed so many lives. Her desperate attempts to shake the elixir formula from her hands was harrowing; obsessed with life, she now recognised that she has nothing to live for — the terrible admission of her final confession.

The_Makropulos_Case_02.gifAmanda Roocroft as Emilia Marty and Christopher Turner as Janek

Roocroft was partnered by a team of excellent male leads. Peter Hoare’s traumatiseGregor was superbly projected; a distressing portrait of exposed vulnerability and intense passion, his anguished appeals and anger conveyed the tortuous contradictions within all the men who want both to possess and destroy Elina. Janáček’s score skilfully delineates a rich array of character parts: strong performances by Andrew Shore, as a fussy Dr Kolenatý, and Ashley Holland, as a muscular Prus, were matched by the touching tenderness of Laura Mitchell’s Kristina and Christopher Turner’s tense, nervous Janek. Ryland Davies’s Hauk was a little weak in tone, but his portrayal of Marty’s feeble-minded former lover was theatrically effective, and his duet with Roocroft powerfully conveyed the pathos of Marty’s surge of affection for this aged former lover in Act 2.

Under the accomplished baton of Janáček specialist Richard Armstrong, the ENO orchestra evocatively accompanied and commented on the stage action. Armstrong emphasised the extreme contrasts of register and colour, percussive bitterness alternating with tender lyricism. Initially, some of textures lacked precise definition, particularly in the more conversational vocal passages, where a sense of driving energy was not always maintained; and perhaps the dramatic instrumental interjections could have been even more astringent and discomforting. But, the explosive third climax was wonderfully controlled.

The_Makropulos_Case_01.gifAmanda Roocroft as Emilia Marty, Andrew Shore as Dr Kolenatý, Alasdair Elliot as Vitek and Laura Mitchell as Kristina

Despite the undeniable affective power of this production, my difficulty with this reading of the opera lies in Alden’s apparent lack of sympathy for the essential ‘human’ aspects of the work. He envisages Elina as possessing “the soul of a traumatized sixteen-year-old girl in the body of powerful, indomitable woman”. Yet, surely her experiences over three hundred years would have enabled her to learn, grow, and achieve a more mature understanding of both herself and others? Alden essentially deprives Elina of her status as a tragic heroine; he focuses instead on creating a mechanistic vision of a 1920s dystopia – a reflection of Janáček’s contemporary Prague perhaps – but while the result is visually striking, he overlooks the fact that the preoccupations of drama are shared by all men at all times and in all places. The steely lifelessness of Adam Silverman’s intimidating lighting and the grey hardness of Edwards’ monumental designs is matched by the emotional vacuum within these pallid characters. Ultimately, they do not arouse our pity; in Marty’s case we may share Prus’ post-coital disgust at her barrenness and callousness — as, draped like a corpse, she seems brutalised by life’s experiences.

Harrowing indeed; but the orchestral richness, complemented by sudden swathes of light, as Marty embraces death surely intimate her ultimate recognition of the true value of human life, a realisation which is both edifying and uplifting? After, Janáček’s emotionally charged opera pointedly reminds us that life only has value because of our awareness of our mortality.

Claire Seymour

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