Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Performances

Jamie Barton at the Wigmore Hall

“Hi! … I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.

The Nose: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”

Věc Makropulos in San Francisco

A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.

English National Opera: Tosca

Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.



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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):