United Kingdom Janáček: The Makropulos Case, Opera North / Richard Farnes (conductor) Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 13.08.2012 (SRT)
Emilia Marty: Ylva Kihlberg
Albert Gregor: Paul Nilon
Jaroslav Prus: Robert Hayward
Kolenatý: James Creswell
Vitek: Mark Le Brocq
Kristina: Stephanie Corley
Janek: Adrian Dwyer
Hauk: Nigel Robson
Conductor: Richard Farnes
Director: Tom Cairns
Sets & Costumes: Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting: Bruno Poet
If you’ve ever felt a little jaded with modern life, or burdened with a touch of ennui, then spare a thought for Emilia Marty, the 337-year old heroine of TheMakropulos Case. Janáček’s extraordinary opera traces her final days as she scrambles to get back her formula for eternal life, but then renounces it in favour of the welcome embrace of death. It’s being performed more and more often these days, a sign that Janáček’s invention and wonderful music is becoming more accepted but also, perhaps, an indication that our times are more in touch with its ideas?
Be that as it may, Opera North’s new production has provided, for me, the highlight of the Edinburgh Festival so far. Tom Cairns’ production tells the story in a direct, unpretentious way, aided by the period-conscious designs of Hildegard Bechtler. It isn’t always a blessing for an opera’s setting to be given such a specific date (1922, in this case) but Bechtler makes it work with some quietly garish sofas and lighting designs, together with some unspecific costume designs that don’t limit the opera’s potential. Cairns emphasises the fact that Marty’s legendary beauty comes only with some hard work. In the first two acts she is repeatedly seen applying makeup and in the third act her fantastic head of hair is shown to be a wig, revealing a wasted grey head beneath it. Each scene features a clock that, after the first act, doesn’t keep the correct time, and he triumphantly shows Marty’s rapid aging at the end of the final monologue.
The singing cast are very fine, led by an commanding interpretation of the title role from Ylva Kihlberg. She has an ability to make herself the centre of attention, soimething quite necessary for this role, and she is good at portraying the character’s callous carelessness that so alienates her from those around her. Perhaps her voice could crest the top notes with more ease and ring with a little more opulence, but she never left me feeling short-changed, and her singing of the final monologue was very powerful.
The men surrounding her were all very well characterised. As the young man obsessed with her, Paul Nilon managed a level of ardour that you seldom hear from him, while Robert Hayward’s Prus made an able sparring partner for Marty, full blooded and characterful with more than a touch of humour. James Creswell put his rich, solid baritone to good use as Kolenatý, adding a touch of humour to Act 1 and donning his legal gown for the final interrogation in the hotel room. Stephanie Corley and Adrian Dwyer were a sympathetic pair of young lovers, and Cairns does his best to flesh out the (always slightly spurious) reason for Janek’s suicide. Mark Le Brocq sounded light and characterful with excellent articulation, and Nigel Robson made Hauk exactly what he should be, namely affable and sympathetic while slightly ridiculous.
Finest of all, however, was the kaleidoscopic colour emanating from the orchestra pit, led by the sure hand of Opera North’s outstanding music director, Richard Farnes. The company has gone from strength to strength under his leadership (the recent Peter Grimes and the ongoing Ring cycle are clear evidence of that) and this opera marks what is in many ways the culmination of a Janáček cycle for him. Farnes balances the often jagged vocal writing with the glorious lyricism of the orchestral part, guiding and structuring an evening that is both musically rigorous and dramatically satisfying. The Edinburgh run has now finished, but the show will form part of Opera North’s regular autumn touring schedule. See it if you get a chance: you won’t be disappointed.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 2nd September at a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk