Geneva’s riveting performance of Janáček’s The Makropoulos Affair with a pre-recorded orchestra

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Janáček, The Makropoulos Affair: Soloists, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Chorus of Grand Théatre de Genève (chorus master: Alan Woodbridge) / Tomas Netopil (conductor). Grand Théâtre de Genève, 26.10.2020. (ALL)

Rachel Harnisch (Emilia Marty) © Magali Dougados

Stage Director – Kornél Mundruczó
Scenographer and Costume designer – Monika Pormale
Lighting designer – Felice Ross
Dramaturgy – Kata Wéber

Emilia Marty – Rachel Harnisch
Albert Gregor – Aleš Briscein
Vitek – Sam Furness
Krista – Anna Schaumlöffel
Jaroslav Prus – Michael Kraus
Janek Prus – Julien Henric
Dr Kolenatý – Karoly Szemeredy
Hauk-Schenkdorf – Ludovit Ludha
Machinist – Rodrigo Garcia
A cleaning lady / A maid – Iulia Surdu

None of the opera houses currently in activity have been operating under normal conditions. As our Zurich correspondent reported Boris Godunov (review click here) was performed with an orchestra whose live playing was relayed in real time whereas L’elisir d’amore (review click here) had no chorus. In Munich, a reduced-sized orchestra played Wozzeck (review click here) not down in the pit but at orchestra level. Opera houses have to adapt and innovate but are ultimately forced to make some compromises. Otherwise, they cannot stay open.

Geneva’s Grand Théâtre used an even more radical solution as the one Zurich did for Boris. In July, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande assembled under Tomas Netopil and recorded the orchestral part in a studio. This is this recording which is being used for all the performances. Conductor Netopil is present to give singers their cues, but the pit is filled with loudspeakers. This is an orchestra-less performance.

One cannot escape the fact that the conductor standing above an empty pit felt … weird. A little more muscle from the musicians would have been welcome. This was the first time in thirteen years that the Swiss Romande Orchestra was performing Janáček. Surely they should have gained familiarity with the Czech composer’s unique colours and style. It was far from being a first reading but Janáček’s afficionados would have felt they were playing it safe here and there.

But did it matter ?

The Makropoulos Affair is an unusual opera. It is an intense fast-paced three-act drama, until the last five minutes when the pace slows down, and we are given a genuine Janáčekian and very moving long-line aria. Most productions typically struggle to simply tell the story. Many (English) theatres cheat by replacing the Czech language with a translation to help the audience follow what is, to put it mildly, a convoluted story. Many spectators may not admit it, but it is not easy to follow what is happening. This was not the case here. This production was originally created at Antwerp Opera in 2017 and received multiple accolades. It was a natural choice for General Manager Aviel Kahn to bring it along from his former theatre, with most of the original cast, for his second season in Geneva.

Hungarian Kornél Mundruczó is probably better known for his work as a film director, having won the special category ‘un certain regard’ at the Cannes Film Festival for his movie White God. There were many cinematographic qualities in this production: in the clever usage of video projections but also in the general intensity of the whole concept.

Emilia Marty is not presented as a glamorous singer. As the work progresses, one discovers a frail figure spitting dark blood and having lost all humanity, physically and mentally. Her third act dramatic confession felt like a logical step after all that had taken place. Around her, the many characters in the work were sharply portrayed: Albert’s passion, the darkness of the Baron as well as his reaction to the suicide of his son, Krista’s fascination and admiration towards Emilia Marty, in the end refusing to follow her path. The quality of the Personenregie was at the level of spoken theatre, something one rarely encounters in opera houses.

The cast was very strong overall. Aleš Briscein has phrasing and tension in the difficult part of Albert, Emilia’s grand-grand-grandson (I lost track of the number of generations). Michael Kraus took a bit of time to fully find his mark but the grief of the father who realizes his son has killed himself and his own darkness was gripping. Minor roles were well cast.

But central to this is Rachel Harnisch’s portrayal of Emilia. As we have all learned from Gérard Mortier, the real twentieth-century composer of modern heroines is not Richard Strauss. The Swiss soprano did not attempt to find cream and sugar in Janáček’s music. It was a precise and sharp reading with significant psychological insights. Intonation was faultless. The physicality of the acting was mesmerizing. There was not a single moment when this great artist failed to fully inhabit her demanding part.

So, did we miss an orchestra, or did it feel artificial? A few minutes after the gripping start, nothing else really mattered. We were hooked on the story and the tension only came down a few hours later, with the final bars portraying Emilia’s death.

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

For more about what is on at Grand Théâtre de Genève click here.

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