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Angela Denoke as Emilia Marty, Chor und Statisterie der Bayerischen Staatsoper
30 May 2016

The Makropulos Case, Munich

Opera houses’ neglect of Leoš Janáček remains one of the most baffling of the many baffling aspects of the ‘repertoire’. At least three of the composer’s operas would be perfect introductions to the art form: Jenůfa, Katya Kabanova, or The Cunning Little Vixen would surely hook most for life.

The Makropulos Case, Munich

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Angela Denoke as Emilia Marty, Chor und Statisterie der Bayerischen Staatsoper


From the House of the Dead might do likewise for someone of a rather different disposition, sceptical of opera’s claims and conventions.

The Makropulos Case (Věc Makropulos) perhaps falls somewhere in between, although surely closer to the more ‘conventional’ trio, an unusual story notwithstanding. At any rate, no Janáček opera outstays its welcome. Every one is musically and dramatically interesting, without – save, arguably, in the case of From the House of the Dead – being ‘difficult’ (a silly concept, anyway, but let us leave that on one side). There are strong, central female characters in most (again, not in his final opera, but...) And yet…

What, then, is the problem? Is it simply that the works are in Czech? Is there still resistance to following titles, from those of us who do not have the language? Perhaps, although how many in the audience actually have an understanding, let alone a good one, of other, more typically-used languages? Translation is, perhaps even more than usual, a bad idea, since the music depends so much on Czech speech rhythms. One can tell that, even when one does not know the language. I mention that here, since a great virtue of this particular performance was the ability to follow the words (with German titles). The sounds are important, but it is not just a matter of sound. In conjunction with the orchestra, this made sense, even for those of us having to rely upon our memories and upon the titles.

First and foremost to be thanked for that excellent, indeed crucial, outcome must be conductor Tomáš Hanus. His direction of the equally (at least!) excellent Bavarian State Orchestra left us in no doubt that not only did the conductor know where he was taking us, and how to do so, but that just the right balance was struck between the demands of the moment, of the intricate relationships between words and music, between vocal line and orchestra, between melodic and harmonic impulses, were being observed and, above all, dramatically communicated. The golden sound of the orchestra – again, perhaps, like the Czech Philharmonic in a recent concert performance of Jenůfa , more Bohemian than Moravian, but none the worse for that – was no mere backdrop, but a musico-dramatic cauldron from which words emerged and in whose self-transforming broth they acquired their meaning and impulse. The disjunctures were not sold short either; they held their dramatic ground, without being fetishised.

Angela Denoke had also played E.M. – or whatever we wish to call her – in the Salzburg Festival performance I heard in 2011. Dramatically, Denoke’s performance here in Munich was at least as fine as in Salzburg; she remains an excellent singing actress. Vocally, however, it was, if anything, superior, with few of the occasional flaws of five years ago. The virtues of the orchestral performance were also her virtues. So indeed were they of the rest of the cast. Brno-born tenor, Pavel Černoch offered an Albert Gregor of what seemed to me (again with the caveat that I am not a Czech-speaker) of vocal beauty and verbal acuity in equal measure, his stage presence just as impressive. His first-act dialogue with Emilia Marty proved one of the musical and dramatic highlights of the performance. Gustáv Beláček and Kevin Conners impressed with their difficult legal performative briefs. John Lundgren’s darkly ambitious Jaroslav Prus and Rachael Wilson’s bright-toned Krista were similarly noteworthy. Aleš Briscein’s Janek furthered the excellent impressions given in that concert Jenůfa, his crestfallen withdrawal from the Marty game a study in musico-dramatic observation and communication. And how wonderful to welcome back Reiner Goldberg to the stage as Hauk-Šendorf: so much more than a mere ‘character’ appearance. Character and artist similarly rolled back the years: a moving moment indeed, not least given the opera in question.

I have left Arpád Schilling’s production until last, because I do not have much to say about it, I am afraid. The principal impression is made by Márton Ágh’s stylish designs, both sets – for instance, a visually arresting pile of chairs – and costumes, Černoch’s Gregor thereby enabled to look very much as he sounded. Of a concept, let alone a Konzept, beyond that, I struggled to discern anything very much. This, then, is stage direction of the kind operatic reactionaries claim to like: non-interventionist and pretty, if a little too modern in its style for them. The work could (sort of) speak for itself, I suppose, but that is hardly the point. Christoph Marthaler delved deeper in Salzburg.

Mark Berry

Cast and production details:

Emilia Marty: Angela Denoke; Dr Kolenatý: Gustáv Beláček; Vítek: Kevin Conners; Krista: Rachael Wilson; Albert Gregor: Pavel Černoch; Jaroslav Prus: John Lundgren ; Janek: Aleš Briscein; Hauk-Šendorf: Reiner Goldberg; Chambermaid: Deniz Uzun; Stage Technician: Peter Lobert; Cleaning Lady: Heike Grötzinger. Director: Arpád Schilling; Designs: Márton Ágh; Lighting: Tamás Bányai; Dramaturgy: Miron Hakenbeck. Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)/Bavarian State Orchestra/Tomáš Hanus (conductor). Nationaltheater, Munich, Saturday 21 May 2016.

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