Review: The Makropulos Case, English National Opera at The Coliseum

“How grim to have to live so long”

The Makropulos Case is an opera in three acts by Leoš Janáček with a libretto also by Janáček after the Czech play Věc Makropulos by Karel Čapek (who, trivia fans, invented the word ‘robot’!) This is the first revival of Christopher Alden’s ENO 2006 production which has been translated into English and is dedicated to the memory of Sir Charles Mackerras who sadly passed away this year, an especially fitting tribute as it was he, perhaps more than anyone, who did so much to really champion the work of Janáček.

The curtain rises tantalisingly slowly during the overture to reveal the dour Vítek, clerk to lawyer Dr Kolenatý in 1920s Prague, who is expecting a verdict in a legal property dispute which has dragged on for a century. The mysterious opera singer Emilia Marty arrives to shed a whole new light on the affair as she has an uncanny knowledge of the finer details of past events. As it turns out, Marty is actually a woman who is 335 years old, forced to drink an elixir of near eternal life as a test for her physician father set by a dastardly Emperor. In order to get through life, she has invented a series of new lives and rips her way through the lives of the men and children who cross her path.

As the slinky, fur-stole-and-sunglasses-wearing Emilia Marty, or Elina Makropulos, Ellian McGregor, Eugenia Montez, indeed any number of E.M.s as we come to see, Amanda Roocroft is spell-binding. She’s such an amoral and sexually voracious woman, she seems a thoroughly modern character but we see that she needs all of her bewitching and beguiling power to sway the minds of the men who constantly surround her and make demands. Onstage for nearly the entire show, Roocroft effortlessly drives the show with her performance and is truly heartbreaking at the show’s impassioned dénouement.

Of the men who figure in her life however briefly, Andrew Shore’s disbelieving Kolenatý and Ashley Holland’s sordid Prus were both vocally superb Other bright spots came from Laura Mitchell’s attention-seeking drama queen Kristina and Ryland Davies’ Count Hauk-Šendorf with a brilliantly comical but strangely pivotal moment in Act II. Only Peter Hoare’s Gregor disappointed slightly with an underpowered vocal performance which sometimes got lost in the music.

Charles Edwards’ steel and glass art deco-inspired set is highly arresting and adds a haughty atmosphere to proceedings. It serves as all three main locations: Kolenatý’s chambers, backstage at an opera house and then E.M.’s hotel room but with its striking glass wall which allows for some stunning lighting design by Adam Silverman and the stylised processions of the male chorus, it makes for an effective staging. If anything, Alden could have gone a little further with the stylisation: I particularly liked the scribblings on the blackboard and felt aspects like this could have been utilised more.

Sir Richard Armstrong conducted with élan, picking his way carefully through the intriguing but often challenging score culminating in the wonderfully emotional climax where the music mellows into something quite beautiful as the truth about E.M. emerges and she acknowledges her fate. At just over 2 hours in length, this is a quirky little delight that should appeal to both fans of opera and newcomers so is well worth a punt: hurry though, there’s only 5 performances in total.

Running time: 2 hours
Programme cost: £5
Booking until 5th October, but only 5 performances scheduled in total
Originally reviewed for The Public Reviews

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