As the 100th anniversary of the legal case Gregor vs. Prus approaches an opera soprano, Emilia Marty (Ylva Kihlberg) reveals facts that might create a breakthrough. Marty is an enigma; she speaks as if she knew long-dead singers personally, her handwriting resembles that on ancient letters and she is obsessed by one document in particular.
The Makropulos Case is not a typical opera; at times it feels like a play with great background music. Composer Leos Janacek does not offer any big arias and there is little lyricism –emphasis is given to the narrative. Director Tom Cairns is sympathetic to this approach setting the opera in English and ensuring that the various elements all fit together. The opening scene, in which the legal case is spelt out, could easily become dull if not for the swirling strings and dramatic horns that help build the mood of intrigue and maintain audience interest. Both composer and director can be shameless – Act 11 ends with a sequence of dramatic chords so over the top it comes close to parody.
There are moments when the opera achieves rare beauty. Marty’s isolation is captured with her on a startlingly red sofa surrounded by predatory hangers-on. The diva’s final decline is portrayed by a musical tone so achingly lovely it really does feel like a dying air.
Although all of the cast provide fine performances only Ylva Kihlberg is given the chance to really shine. She avoids the clichéd ‘Norma Desmond’ approach of a star in decline. Marty has a cool voyeuristic air as if she is studying those around her, which is entirely correct – you can’t really expect someone blessed with longevity to relate to mortals. Rather than limit herself to suggesting the loneliness of an immortal Kihlberg makes clear that Marty has enjoyed her experiences and regrets only that her friends and lovers are no longer around.
Strangely, the modest The Makropulos Case is more successful than the more famous productions that have visited the Lowry this season.