Bayerische Staatsoper, 2014
Tomáš Hanus, Árpád Schilling, Nadja Michael, Pavel Cernoch, Kevin Conners, Tara Erraught, John Lundgren, Dean Power, Gustav Belácek, Peter Lobert, Heike Grötzinger, Reiner Goldberg, Rachael Wilson
Staatsoper.TV - 1 November 2014
The challenges that come with putting on a production of Janáček's The Makropulos Case are probably no more difficult or easier than dealing with the specific requirements of any of the composer's operas. In all of his works, it's not only vital to settle on a consistent tone and temperament that brings the music and the staging together, but the key singing roles have to be perfect - and singing in the Czech language is no easy matter for a non-native. It's only however when you get to see one of those works come together on every level, that you realise just what its most important ingredients are. The Bayerische Staatsoper's 2014 production of The Makropulos Case is revelatory in that respect.
While all the other elements are still important, it's clear from the Munich production that The Makropulos Case only really works as it should when you have a soprano of great charisma and ability singing the role of Emilia Marty. I'll come to that later, but the other elements are important to consider in how they relate to each other. Musically, everything was perfectly in place here. Tomáš Hanus has prepared a new critical edition of the work, and if it can be judged simply on how well Janáček's music delivers the intent of the libretto, it's a superb interpretation, but it's also clearly responsive to the composer's familiar rhythms and the advancements in the musical language that are evident at this late stage in the composer's career.
The value of Árpád Schilling's direction is less easy to determine. Visually, Márton Ágh's costume and production design doesn't appear to have a great deal to contribute to the drama, the message or the purpose of the work, but conceptually it's on solid ground and it provides a setting that suits the tone that has been carefully established. Act I in Dr. Kolenatý's office is somewhat Kafkaesque, the minimal set consisting of a marbled wall with chairs studded vertically into the narrow side of the revolving set. There are a few steps from this leading down to a snow-covered front-stage. It feels imposing, intimidating, confusing and otherworldly, which isn't a bad impression to give as the details of the Prus versus Gregor case are outlined, and the way that the enigmatic Emilia Marty becomes involved in it.
The stage of the opera-house, or the back-stage of an opera house in Act II, is bright, modern and clinical. Asylum-like almost, with stylised padded walls. Quite what the tone is meant to indicate isn't entirely clear, but if you want to see it that way, it's perhaps a view of Emilia Marty's inner world. Having lived in various guises for the last 300 years, it could be seen as a reflection of her needing to renew and refresh, clinically detach herself from the sentiments and emotions that would inevitably become a heavy burden over such an extended lifetime. There's nothing playful about the science-fiction concept for this opera. It's a serious attempt to examine what gives life meaning, and of course, what gives life meaning above all else is the fact that it will one day come to an end.
Schilling's directing takes this very seriously, as does the musical interpretation of the score by the conductor Tomáš Hanus. Picking up on several other incidents that occur in the work and some of the comments made, Schilling takes this a little further. As a few late additions to the set indicate - including a kind of sacrificial flagellation - what is considered here is not just what would it mean for a person to cope with the eternity of existence, but what it would mean to be a woman, to be a beautiful woman, and to be the object of constant attention, to be pursued, hounded and living permanently as an object of desire to men (and women, if we also consider Krista's fascination with Emilia Marty, which should not be discounted as something incidental). Imagine that and imagine being forever young, beautiful and talented.
Well, that's the challenge that the soprano singing Emilia Marty/Elina Makropulos has to be able to work with. Aside from the language and musical challenges, aside from having to carry the weight of 337 years of being a woman in this position, she also has to be ageless, alluring, enigmatic and charismatic. No small order. Enter Nadja Michael. Michael hasn't been the most consistent singer in the past - when I last saw her Lady Macbeth in Munich she was all over the place really - but there's no questioning her presence and commitment in a performance. Emilia Marty proves to be a perfect fit for Nadja Michael.
I don't know about her Czech - she occasionally sounds a little less than perfectly clear in enunciation - but there's no faulting her singing performance or her ability to enter into her character. Marty is of course an opera diva, and I think Michael can relate to that. She looks simply terrific here, having that necessary presence and allure, wearing short blonde curls here and a teasing dress in Act II that reveals rather a lot. Her performance however is utterly magnetic and otherworldly credible. It would be a bit of a problem if the great opera singer Emilia Marty couldn't sing her own role, but there's no danger of that here, and Michael's performance is enthusiastically and deservedly acclaimed at the curtain call of the live streamed broadcast.
This is the kind of performance that can carry a show, but the other roles are supportive in how exceptionally well they are sung. Pavel Cernoch gives a clearly sung and impassioned Albert Gregor ('Bertie') and John Lundgren's Prus is well-measured and wonderfully sung, his role and relationship to Emilia Marty considered within the context of what it adds to the concept. The other roles are all more then capably sung by the Munich troupe regulars, with Reiner Goldberg in particular giving a touching performance as the former lover of the Carmen-like Andalusian gypsy Eugenia Montez. (There's a whole other question in The Makropulos Case of opera as an eternal artform of passions, and that's not neglected here either). Lyrical, dramatic and passionate, this was everything that Janáček should be, and it will do much to continue to raise his profile as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.