Opera Reviews
24 February 2020
Untitled Document

The Makropulos Case fails to catch fire

by Catriona Graham
Janacek: The Makropulos Case
Opera North
Edinburgh International Festival
August 2012

Photo: Robert Workman 'Fame. I'm gonna live forever. Baby remember my name.' So goes the theme song of the 1980 film and later TV series. But it's a view with which the 367-year old Elina Makropulos might quibble. Forced, at the age of 16, to drink the elixir made by her father for his employer the Emperor Rudolph, she has found it expedient to change her name from time to time over the centuries.

She has, however, always retained the same initials. So, in 1920s Prague, she is known as the opera singer Emilia Marty and is seeking the formula for the elixir, which she gave to former lover Baron Josef Ferdinand Prus over a hundred years before. Now, as the seemingly endless case of Prus v. Gregor is finally decided in court, she can provide the evidence which will prove Gregor's claim. She is, it turns out, his umpteen greats-grandmother - a tad unfortunate, since he (Paul Nilon) is falling for her big time.

In this new production from Opera North, Ylva Kihlberg is an elegant, sophisticate in a gold Chanel-style suit, used to the adulation of men, a diva to her fingertips and top notes. And yet, she does not discourage her young fan, Kristina (Stephanie Corley), who swings between despairing of ever singing as well and being inspired to keep on trying. Her lover, Janek Prus (Adrian Dwyer) is alternately rebuffed and embraced - until he, too, falls for Marty.

Their fathers - lawyer's clerk Vitek (Mark Le Brocq) and Baron Jaroslav Prus (Robert Hayward) respectively - switch between familial and business modes, though Hayward's grief at his son's suicide seems remarkably restrained. Nigel Robson is a darling old buffer (Count Hauk-Šendorf), recognising in Marty his long-lost love Eugenia Montez - their Andalucian song-and-dance routine is a joy. Technician Matthew Hargreaves and Cleaner Sarah Pring enjoy their vignette at the start of Act 2, discussing Marty's success.

Designer Hildegard Bechtler has fixed on a semi-realist, semi-minimalist set. Shelves of files and papers define the office of lawyer Dr Kolenaty (James Creswell), while backstage at the opera house, Marty's dressing room is a red plush circular sofa. Marty's room is a bed curtained in white gauze, a dressing table and some suitcases. The blue light which bathes the stage as the curtain rises on Act 1 changes imperceptibly to bring out the greens by the end of the act. Bruno Poet's lighting also hints at the passing of time, much as the clock on the wall moves in 'real' time, counting down to 12 o'clock.

In the end, having recovered the formula, the aging, dying Marty tries to pass it on - but none of the men will accept it, only Kristina. In the standard synopsis, Marty is glad to die at last; in this production, however, director Tom Cairns has her reaching to retrieve the paper as Kristina burns it. Even tired of life, she fights death to the end.

The orchestra, conducted by Richard Farnes, produces a rich sound which fills the Festival Theatre. This production, on the other hand, stays firmly on the stage.

Text © Catriona Graham
Photo © Robert Workman
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