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The Makropulos Case

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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When, as it should, English National Opera trumpets its brave portfolio of 20th-century operas, let it acknowledge how little of its success is down to fly-by-night dabblers, directors from other disciplines hired because they’re a hot name in cool circles, and how much it owes to 'properer opera' types like McVicar, Albery and the Alden twins.

Between them, David and Christopher Alden have the Coliseum’s Britten and Janáček pretty well sewn up, with Jenůfa, Katya Kabanova, Peter Grimes, an imminent Midsummer Night’s Dream and this, Christopher’s exquisite staging of The Makropulos Case, here being revived for the first time.

A rock-solid cast, all singers new to the production, throw themselves into Alden’s vision of a Strindberg-meets-Kafka dreamscape where the discovery of a sexy 335-year-old woman seems the most natural thing in the world. In Amanda Roocroft we have an Emilia Marty of formidable presence: a tragic monster who is tigerish, damaged, shameless or ruthless as the moment requires. If Roocroft occasionally loses vocal clarity it is because she is so deeply engaged with her dramatic interpretation, which is electrifying. She has a marvellous tonal quality and it should yet be possible for her to sort out a few skiddy slips of diction, but it would also help if Alden did not tuck her upstage for quite so much of the opening acts.

A century-long lawsuit grinds to a conclusion today, and in the process our triple-centurion’s secret will be revealed. It’s a field day for lawyers and Alden populates designer Charles Edwards’s paper-strewn, early-Soviet office with a battalion of grey bureaucrats led by Andrew Shore’s bumptious (but rich-voiced) Dr Kolenatý.

As in any self-respecting dream, the men in suits sing, dance and behave most oddly. A dead body is flung onto the stage, Emilia’s fevered couplings go unremarked by passing staff and no one questions the presence in all this of Count Hauk-Šendorf (Ryland Davies, his golden tones defying his years), an ancient former beau of Emilia. The production is a lolloping delight, and everything about it fits the material.

Peter Hoare is nicely irritating as the hapless Gregor who has a close brush with incest; Ashley Holland plays Baron Prus as an out-and-out vulgarian and Morag Boyle proves that there’s no such thing as a minor role provided you tackle it head-on, as she does with her sardonic cleaning lady. The standard of singing is excellent across the board.

Richard Armstrong and the ENO Orchestra shape Janáček‘s orchestration with idiomatic brilliance. There were times on opening night when the sounds that flew from the pit had a scarcely believable precision, and every second of this complex, elusive score made its thrilling mark. The concluding moments of Act Three are overwhelming at the best of times – heartbreak and frenzy  vie for supremacy in a coda of ultra-romantic resolution (or near-resolution) – but in this reading, as Emilia Marty struggles to shake off the enchanted formula that could prolong her life for another 300 years, the impact is awe-inspiring.

These performances are dedicated to the memory of the late Sir Charles Mackerras, and it's hard to think of a more fitting tribute to possibly the greatest of all Janacek conductors.

- Mark Valencia


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