Classical Music

The Makropulos Affair review – fast-flowing and flamboyant | Opera

Only someone who’s lived for centuries could possibly know how to find long-hidden evidence to help settle a protracted legal dispute over an inheritance. In Janáček’s penultimate opera, the singer Emilia Marty has lived for 337 years, originally named Elina Makropulos and assuming different identities over the many decades, though using the same initials. But tied up in her interest in the case of Gregor v Prus is Marty’s desperate quest to find again the secret formula for the elixir that granted her immortality. As the young daughter of Hieronymus Makropulos – physician to the Holy Roman Emperoror Rudolf II who ordered Makropulos to find a means of extending his life – Elina was the hapless guinea pig.

Placing it in the 1920s when the opera was written, and befitting a story whose heroine aspires to being the greatest operatic performer ever, Olivia Fuchs’ new production for Welsh National Opera has a suitably overblown and flamboyant air. It’s also all of a piece with the often tumultuous feel and fast-flowing current of Janáček’s music, thrillingly delivered here by the orchestra of WNO under its music director, Tomáš Hanus. Co-editor of the new edition of the score being used, Hanus’ affinity with Janáček was always evident, ravishing details emerging.

In Nicola Turner’s design, the settings of the three acts – the solicitor’s office, backstage at the theatre where Marty has just sung, her hotel bedroom – brought a degree of clarity to the complex narrative, sung in Czech. Ironically, what didn’t work was when, between the first two acts and covering the set-change, Mark Le Brocq as himself and as Vitek the clerk addressed the audience in English explaining who was who. It was just naff.

Physical … Blancas Gulín and Nicky Spence. Photograph: Richard Hubert-Smith

As diva roles go – Elisabeth Söderström sang in the 1978 WNO production – this one demands a commanding presence and soprano Ángeles Blancas Gulín was certainly that. Amply embracing the vocal challenge, she brought an almost brute physicality to the encounters with the various men whose passions are aroused – the young Janek is driven to suicide – and her native Spanish flair coloured Marty’s reunion with her former lover, Baron Hauk (Alan Oke). In the uniformly strong cast, Nicky Spence and David Stout were excellent as the litigants Albert Gregor and Baron Prus.

The essential deeply philosophical question of whether immortality might actually be desirable is core to the closing scene when Marty’s hitherto cold demeanour begins to thaw, the ageing process now accelerating. In her final exhortation to those around her to celebrate their one existence, Janáček’s life-affirming purpose is manifest, the music glowing. Significantly, Kristina (Harriet Eyley), the young singer to whom she offers the ancient parchment detailing the elixir, sets it on fire. It is the cue for Marty to finally expire.

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