Classical Music

The week in classical: The Makropulos Affair; Elisabeth Leonskaja & Staatskapelle Streichquartett | Classical music

Self-belief, urgent and impassioned, burst forth from Welsh National Opera’s new staging of Leoš Janáček’s The Makropulos Affair (1926), directed by Olivia Fuchs and conducted by Tomáš Hanus. Confidence is the elusive key to any performance, the magnet that draws you in. We may expect it from a professional opera company, but Janáček’s penultimate opera lays every obstacle in its path, from complications with the source material, to the text-heavy Czech libretto, to the nature of the opera itself.

WNO, however, is a company immersed in this composer, through recent exposure – lately, Jenůfa and The Cunning Little Vixen – and through history. The Janáček pioneer Charles Mackerras was a one-time WNO music director. The current holder of the post, Hanus, was born in Brno in the Czech Republic, the town where Janáček spent most of his life. Hanus worked on the new critical edition of Makropulos used here. No one can capture more accurately the accents and inflections of this music. A living performance tradition runs through WNO’s collective veins.

Based on a play by Karel Čapek, the action revolves around a contested inheritance case. The heroine, Emilia Marty, has swallowed an elixir and is now more than 300 years old. She stays young by constantly reinventing herself. The opera’s plot is complex but its essence is straightforward, a metaphor for the folly of seeking immortality. The opera opens in the office of the lawyer Dr Kolenaty, in the 1920s, elegantly conjured by Nicola Turner’s designs (lighting by Robbie Butler, videos by Sam Sharples): piles of paper and an air of death and dust until Janáček’s quickfire music intrudes. The texture is sinuous but also raw, timpani thundering madly, brass fanfares enriched by an offstage band. Picture in sound a whirring mechanism of pistons and pulleys, wheels and springs, and you begin to have a sense of this intricate, ever-shifting score.

Nothing settles into a long breath until the voluptuous, heart-rending closing scene, when suddenly Marty shows her true feelings. Holding the stage at every turn, Ángeles Blancas Gulín makes Marty’s journey from chilly, coquettish Venus in furs to suffering human being with vocal heft and beguiling subtlety. Her lovers, who can seem interchangeable and muddling, are sharply characterised. The tenor Nicky Spence, as the infatuated Albert Gregor, has now established himself as a Janáček natural, clear, penetrating, resonant. Mark Le Brocq, playing the solicitor Vitek, has the tricky task of coming out of character between acts, to explain the plot: an honest admission on Fuchs’s part that no one finds it easy to follow.

Gustáv Beláček’s Kolenaty, David Stout’s Baron Prus, Alexander Sprague’s Janek and Alan Oke’s Count Hauk-Šendorf put flesh and life on their slender roles. Harriet Eyley shines as the young opera singer Krista, a small but pivotal part. Catch this unmissable show on tour.

Legendary is a term to keep in strict reserve. It can be used categorically for the Soviet-born Austrian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja, a septuagenerian with the energy and agility of a player half her age and the wisdom of ages in her playing. With customary generosity, she gathered younger players around her at Wigmore Hall last Tuesday – three highly experienced string section leaders of Berlin’s Staatskapelle orchestra – to play Brahms.

‘The power to shock’: Elisabeth Leonskaja with Jiyoon Lee, Yulia Deyneka and Claudius Popp at Wigmore Hall. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

His Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor and, less familiar, No 2 in A major both date from 1861, relatively early in his career. These long, demanding masterpieces are rich in flowing lines and glowing textures, pairs of strings in constant dialogue with the piano, which itself alternates between concerto-like majesty and playful, whispering delicacy. Leonskaja has a radiance in her presence, yet the muscularity and vigour of her playing has the power to shock. The violinists Jiyoon Lee (in the A major) and Krzysztof Specjal (G minor), violist Yulia Deyneka and cellist Claudius Popp matched her in virtuosity, with glimmers of wit, too. Leonskaja returns to Wigmore Hall for more Brahms in January 2023.

Due praise has been heaped on the musicians who participated in the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. The two new works sung at Westminster Abbey, composed by Judith Weir, master of the King’s music, and James MacMillan, whose Catholic faith is central to his work, struck contrasting and complementary notes. Weir’s setting of Psalm 42, which seeks consolation from sadness, had rock-like contemplative calm. MacMillan’s dazzling anthem for the commendation, a more extrovert text of faith and conviction, of angels and principalities, stretched from lowest bass notes to highest ecstasy. Weir’s work seemed to reflect the beauty of the abbey’s stone and marble, MacMillan’s its arresting stained glass and flying buttresses: history, continuity and the new, captured in sound.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Makropulos Affair
Elisabeth Leonskaja & Staatskapelle Streichquartett

  • The Makropulos Affair is at the Millennium Centre, Cardiff, until 28 September then tours until 2 December

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