Opera North’s The Makropulos Case

Opera North are notorious for performing controversial and neglected operas. This evening, this opera company completed their 30-year quest to stage all of Leoš Janácek’s mature operas. This final installment, The Makropulos Case, was eloquent, dramatic and passionate. The performance took place at Theatre Royal Nottingham, directed by Tom Cairns and conducted by Richard Farnes.

Beyond the central operatic repertoire frequently performed lie a vast amount of neglected Opera; Opera that has not received the warm reception during the initial performance and subsequently has been cast aside in light of new works.

The Makropulos Case, certainly at written face value, is a difficult subject matter to grasp and comprehend and a possible discourse for its lack of success. An unfinished legal dispute between Prus and Gregor escalates when an opera singer, Emilia Marty appears. Questioning the case, Marty brings an insight in discovering the rightful heir to an estate. As the plot unravels, Emilia Marty is exposed for who she really is; Elina Makropulos, a 369-year old woman who requires a potion document in order to survive.

Readapted by Janácek from the play by Karel Capek, the drama itself was coherent, dramatic and even encompassed moments of humour.

Cairns captured a fresh, modern staging, designed by Hildegard Bechtler. During the first act, coincidently, all characters encounter in Dr Kolenaty’s office where Emilia Marty (Ylva Kihlberg) controlled the dramatic tension by leaking information regarding the case. Kihlberg convinces all with elegance, sexual presence and quite simply, a stunning voice. Dr Kolenaty (James Creswell) was executed with sincerity, charisma and authority.

As the curtains drew for the second act, the stage transformed into an opera platform following a performance. Following the performance, Kihlberg’s characterization with each male was extremely effective and offered a range of emotions attached to each relationship, in particular Gregor’s (Paul Nilon) indebtedness to Marty that soon portrayed desperation.

The culminative act depicted the downfall of Emilia Marty/Elina Makropulos. The grandiose centre staging of curtains surrounding the bed dominated the stage.. As Prus (Robert Hayward) quickly dresses in the morning, Kihlberg wakes requesting her documented potion. As the act escalates, all characters are drawn onto stage as Kihlberg becomes isolated; barricaded into her room. Realizing the truth must be revealed, the desperation of the drama is evident as Kihlberg slowly realizes the end is near as  Janácek closes the play with the fundamental issue of morality and human empathy.

This music itself was executed with precision and integrity. Richard Farnes captured Janácek’s scoring with expertise; driving the orchestra throughout and truly complementing the drama, never losing sight of the balance between the orchestral accompaniment music and the principals on stage.

To the production’s advantage, the performance was in English throughout instead of being performed in its Czech mother tongue. As a result, Cairns captured the plot with dramatic directing and allowed the opera to be accessible; humour was easy to acknowledge and the intricate libretto was much clearer to understand. A fantastic opera; a fantastic and integral production by Opera North.

Jonathan Newsome

Images by Robert Workman

Opera North remain in Nottingham until Saturday 24th November with performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Gounod’s Faust.

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