Magazine article The Spectator

Indestructible Janacek

Magazine article The Spectator

Indestructible Janacek

Article excerpt

The Makropulos Case ENO Così fan tutte Glyndebourne

Janacek's The Makropulos Case remains a bewildering work, as in fact almost all his operas after Jenufa, and with the exception of The Cunning Little Vixen, are.

Capek's play from which Janacek made his libretto is called a comedy, but the opera, though it has a few jokes, is mainly a painful and even tragic-seeming work, with an enormous, perhaps unique, amount of the paralysingly prosaic. The plot is grotesquely and designedly complicated, all its elaborations being cut through by the shattering central donnée, that its heroine is 337 years old, still the most glamorous and adored opera diva in the world.

We are kept outside her for so long in order that we may be all the more shattered when we move inside her in Act III and find that she is bored with everything, that the only thing she wants is death, which she brings upon herself by destroying the formula which has constantly renewed her youth.

This core of the opera, set to some of Janacek's most refulgent music, is indestructible. A good job, too, since Christopher Alden, in the new production at ENO, and abetted by the set designer Charles Edwards, has done his utmost to lessen the work's impact. The huge monochrome room in which Act I is set, with all the men in grey suits, cries out to be called 'Kafkaesque', though there is very little in common between anything in the drama and anything that Kafka created. Alden dehumanises the characters as much as possible, and makes sure that they are inscrutable by denying us a glimpse of their expressions. The consequence is that Act I, which is in any case pretty heavy going, becomes tedious. Fortunately, Acts II and III are set throughout to such astonishing music that their impact is hardly diminished from what it would be in a decent production.

This is above all due to the stupendous conducting of Sir Charles Mackerras. His recording of the opera with the Vienna Philharmonic is famous, but the orchestra of ENO produced much more satisfying, because more raw, results. The work seemed to be exploding from the pit, and the singers, with their jagged lyricism, were caught up in the disconcerting festivities.

The role of Elena Makropulos was effectively taken by Cheryl Barker, who seemed subdued to begin with, but was on top form by the last act. The whole cast is admirable, though I found it hard to hear many of their words, and the surtitles were too faint, small and numerous to be much help.

Glyndebourne opened this year to even more vile weather than usual, but that was all forgotten as soon as we heard the opening bars of Così fan tutte, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Ivan Fischer giving a more persuasive account of the Overture -- its brief pathos, its manic scurrying, its dislocated emphases -- than any I have heard before. …

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