Leoš Janáček - Věc Makropulos
Wiener Staatsoper, 2015
Jakub Hrůša, Peter Stein, Laura Aikin, Ludovit Ludha, Margarita Gritskova, Markus Marquardt, Wolfgang Bankl, Thomas Ebenstein, Aura Twarowska, Ilseyar Khayrullova, Carlos Osuna, Heinz Zednik, Marcus Pelz
Staatsoper Live at Home - 20 December 2015
You don't see a great deal of 20th century works at the Vienna State Opera, but one composer who remains popular and deserves a place there is Leoš Janáček. In addition to revivals of Otto Schenk's sumptuous The Cunning Little Vixen and David Pountey's Jenůfa this season (both of which can be seen broadcast Live at Home in April 2016), the Wiener Staatsoper's new production of Věc Makropulos is quite a commitment to a major composer who is scarcely as well represented in any other European opera house. While the 'new production' might look impressive and faithful to Janáček's vision, there's little here however that really feels 'new' about it.
Janáček always feels more like a modern composer than a classical composer to me, but in Peter Stein's production of Věc Makropulos, as with Schenk's beautiful but starkly literal and unimaginative production of Cunning Little Vixen, you get the impression that the Vienna State Opera want to wrap Janáček up with mothballs so that he can play safely alongside the Zeffirelli production of La Bohème and Schenk's production of Die Fledermaus there. I can't help feeling that by playing safe Peter Stein entirely misses the point of Věc Makropulos. The opera's main character, Emilia Marty is a 337 year old woman who moves on and refreshes herself with the times in order to retain her allure and mystery. Věc Makropulos essentially must take place in 'the present', but this production doesn't look like it has aged in the hundred years since it was written.
True, just because Věc Makropulos is 'science fiction' doesn't mean it has to look futuristic, but miring the work inside a frozen time-capsule in the year 1922 doesn't do an awful lot for the theme of existing outside the laws of time. You can't really fault the production however for adhering precisely and with utmost fidelity to the set designs and stage directions as they are in the libretto. It looks exactly how you would imagine an ideal period production of Věc Makropulos would be if it were lifted straight off the page. Dr Kolenaty's office in Prague in 1922 for Act I is the Kafkaesque bureaucratic library of books, volumes and case papers, with steps leading up to the highest shelves. Act II shows a backstage view of stage looking out onto an opera house with a stage throne (as specified in the libretto) sitting plump in the middle of the stage. Emilia's hotel room in Act III is all clean Art Deco curves, straight lines and glossy surfaces.
Arguably, the fact that the settings are traditional and period shouldn't matter as much as what you do within it. Sadly, there was absolutely no imagination or interpretation applied here either. Perhaps I noticed it more because there were unusually no English subtitles provided for this Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home production, meaning I had to rely on a text of the libretto from elsewhere while watching the performance, but it is astonishing how literal the production is in its translation of the directions. Peter Stein not only creates the set design to the exact specifications of the libretto, but he also follows every single movement, gesture and even lighting direction to the letter.
In Act III for example when Emilia Marty returns after her collapse and her off-stage rapid aging, the stage directions specify a greenish lighting. Sure enough, the panels of the wall cast a greenish glow over the stage until the directions call for the lighting to turn red at the dramatic final scene, and the Vienna production dutifully complies. I don't think I've ever seen a production reproduced with such slavish exactitude as this one. The argument of course is why shouldn't the production follow the directions to the letter since that is clearly what the composer wanted? If you've ever wanted an answer to that question it's provided here. It creates a dull, superficial and lifeless production that holds no surprises, but rather just feels like it is going through the motions, moving people around restrictively like puppets.
Janáček's greatest operas are all about 'life', about the passing of time, about being in the moment and accepting one's humanity but with an awareness of being part of something greater. He treats the subject with more sensitivity and humanity in Jenůfa and The Cunning Little Vixen, as well as in his final opera From the House of the Dead, but there can be much more made of the cruel fate of Elina Makropulos than is achieved in this drearily literal production that ignores the subtext and meaning and has no emphasis or ideas of its own to bring to the stage. As lovely as the production looks, it's so dull and unimaginative that it almost but not quite takes away from the real spark of the life that is principally there in Janáček's music.
Jakub Hrůša's conducting sounded to me like it was the musical equivalent of the staging. It was a strictly literal interpretation and well played but with no inspiration or verve. Janáček's music seems to allow for wider interpretation than most, and I've never heard any of his works sound the same twice. Some concentrate on the rhythmic pulse, others spin and leap according to the patterns of the sung language, but there should essentially be a spark of life there. It's hard to entirely extinguish the essence of that in the composer's wonderful arrangements and it does remain intact here, occasionally breaking through to enliven the monotony of the dramatic walk-through.
The singing too was exceptionally good, which is a bonus, and this is a very tricky work to sing. Laura Aikin in particular was simply outstanding as Emilia Marty/Elina Makropulos. I hadn't paid enough attention to the cast list, and couldn't quite recognise her in this role when she appeared, but I was very impressed when I checked during the interval. Whether Aikin is the right age now to play the role of an 'ageless beauty' is debatable, but she certainly gave her character the kind of ambiguity required, somewhere between the cold indifference of having seen and experienced it all, and anxiety and vulnerability over the cruel uncertainty of her fate. Certainly in terms of the singing, Aikin could hardly be faulted, bringing more personality than the stiff stage directions permitted.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video