An ungimmicky and elegant The Makropolus Affair from Welsh National Opera

Welsh National Opera was a groundbreaker in bringing Janáček’s operas to UK audiences, thanks to remarkable musical and artistic leadership in its younger days. Now, the company is sensibly building on the specialism of its music director Tomáš Hanus to introduce the works to new audience members.  Thus, a short cycle of revivals ending with this new production of The Makropulos Affair, conducted by the Janáček expert, who also co-edited this edition of the score. The resultant collaboration between Hanus and director Olivia Fuchs is an articulate and dramatic presentation of this complicated and sophisticated work of music theatre.

The direction from Fuchs and her designer Nicola Turner is surprisingly straightforward and clear, a grey, dusty old lawyer’s office, backstage in a theatre, and then a hotel bedroom. The story itself is a straightforward standard “horror” trope. The central character Emilia Marty has taken a potion created by her physician father Hieronymus Makropulos in response to the demands by 16th century Emperor Rudolf II that he should find the secret of extending his life. The physician tries out the potion on his own daughter Elina Makropulos. The emperor decides not to try it!

Three hundred years have been and gone and Emelia has passed through several different identities and lovers. However, she now needs more of the potion to extend her life which is ebbing away. That means retrieving the original paper with the recipe that she entrusted to one of those lovers and has been locked away. She needs to persuade yet more men who she can charm to deliver it to her from amongst papers of an estate that has been the subject of a long running legal dispute, Prus versus Gregor.

She succeeds. But in the final act our dead-on-the-inside Emilia tells us that she really does not want to face more years, more enforced identities (all which have the initials EM), and more lovers. Eternal life destroys any value to life, all but one lover has not meant anything to her, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren – all mean nothing. Only the knowledge that all is transient gives anything value.

The timeless theme is hammered home with a different type of clock featured in each of the scenes and the video backdrop which opens the show is also of the mechanism of a timepiece. One of the most well-known stories of eternal life is, of course, the vampire and the need for human blood. Here we even have a rather unnecessary vampire-like bite of a lover’s neck and the scene where she is courted by would-suitors old (very old in fact) and new is dominated by red, the colour of blood, in her dress, the roses they bring her and a vast pile of roses in which she bathes (if you can bathe in roses).

The story is based on a 1922 play by Karel Čapek, and the production team have chosen to set this latest incarnation of Emilia Marty is this period, looking an elegant, cigarette-in-holder-smoking femme fatale (literally in the case of her youngest admirer Janek who takes his own life). It works particularly well in the opening  lawyer’s office scene, which is imbued with mystery and suspense, who is this ravishing beauty, how does she know so much, how can she be aware of the hidden contents of drawers and sealed envelopes, how can men resist her? When she is at the theatre she has that voluminous gown and flowing red hair but the attempt at a Marlene-esque sensual, top hat and cane routine doesn’t quite come off. Her return to a previous identity as a Spanish flamenco siren works better as she uses that red dress as a matador’s cape to play with that now ancient old man lover Count Hauk-Šendorf. The role is delightfully taken by Alan Oke.

Alan Oke, David Stout, Ángeles Blancas Gulin and Alexander Sprague

The final scene is white and dominated by a vast bed where her latest smitten man gves her the recipe for the secret potion created by her father for the emperor – but she decides she has had enough, and like so many characters in fiction who find eternal life is not all it is cracked up to be, chooses to expire. Emilia gives the recipe for the potion to a young woman Krista (strongly sung by Harriet Eyley), but she chooses to burn it rather than continue the curse. Having lost her own love Janek, stylishly taken by Alexander Sprague, to the now world-weary ever-youthful woman’s charms she wants none of it. With that the sinking into old age 337-year-old woman, who has now lost her flaming red hair, expires.

Whatever the strength of the production, and this really is a refreshing return to form for WNO, the performance stands or falls on the ability of the powerful soprano Ángeles Blancas Gulin to be the pivot for not only the visual experience through engaging acting but to deliver Janáček’s words and music through singing that is both passionate and refined, rich in conveying disdain, emotion and ultimately despair. The male roles of Baron Prus and Albert Gregor are taken with vigour and distinctively sung and acted by the always excellent David Stout and Nicky Spence. Gustáv Beláček sang a secure Dr Kolenaty.

It is odd that the story-telling is so clear that the director decided to have the singer of Vitek the office clerk, Mark Le Brocq, fill in a scene change pause to explain everything that has just happened and make some cringey operatic jokes and faux appeals to the stage crew to keep the noise down while he, in a quasi-music hall style, addresses the audience, reassuring them that in the real interval they can enjoy “drinkies”. Oh dear.

Harriet Eyley and Alexander Sprague

It is good to see Welsh National Opera back on form with a grown-up production, strongly sung and ravishingly played by its fine orchestra guided and led by Hanus. The ethereal music of the final minutes of the work are truly exquisite.

Yes, the company is back on form so more the pity then that audience numbers do not seem to have similarly recovered, and while other shows are filling the Wales Millennium Centre main auditorium, this WNO performance was far from full, with seemingly the whole of the dress circle empty and plenty of vacant seats littering the Donald Gordon Theatre.

WMC Wednesday September 28 then touring

Images: Richard Hubert Smith

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