Opera North bring The Makropulos Case to 2012 Edinburgh International Festival
Production of Janáček opera features soprano Ylva Kihlberg and Tom Cairns
This article is from 2012.
As Opera North prepare to bring us a new version of The Makropulos Case, Kate Molleson recalls the history of a tale whose central character is either a nihilistic vixen or feminist icon
Emilia Marty is 337 years old and beginning to feel her age. She’s outlived identity changes and scores of lovers, can sing a mean aria and argue three centuries-worth of legal fine print. But has long life brought happiness? Far from it. Now she’s wound up in 1922 fighting nasty inheritance battles in a dingy lawyer’s office in Prague. She’s callous, apathetic, tired – and maybe even ready to die.
Leoš Janáček wrote The Makropulos Case in 1926, well into his own twilight years. In terms of artistic clout he’d been a late starter, reaching fame in his 60s and producing some of his greatest work in his 70s. His later stage heroines – Kátya Kabanová, the Cunning Little Vixen, Emilia Marty – were inspired by a woman in her 30s who never reciprocated his feelings; if there’s an edge of unattainable ice-queen about them, there’s one easy guess as to why.
He based his libretto on a play by the Czech modernist sci-fi writer Karel Čapek, who in turn had taken inspiration from George Bernard Shaw’s fantasy collection Back to Methuselah. There are thematic parallels with Oscar Wilde, too, but Makropulos is an altogether more troubling case. While Dorian Gray chooses a devilish pact in return for vain longevity and Shaw’s immortality trick is simply learning to live forever, Marty’s fate was cruelly inflicted upon her. Back in 1601 when she was just 16, her father, employed as court magician to Emperor Rudolf II, used her as a guinea pig for a new immortality potion. She fell into a coma and he was arrested for fraud, but later she woke up and escaped with the potion’s magic formula, obliged to live on for at least 300 years.
Some of Čapek’s play makes for unlikely operatic material – Janáček sticks to text with long passages of legal wrangling – but somehow it all makes for fantastically provocative and poignant listening. As a vocal composer he loved the natural rhythms of speech and would wander the streets of Prague eavesdropping on conversations and notating their contours and concerns. His lines sing like social-realist drama. Even his orchestration has an uncanny anthropomorphism to it: the cackling winds, the snide trumpets, the strings that quick-change sarcasm and vulnerability; these instruments converse in human frailty and acerbic humour, like Bulgakov on a stave. The score is sensual and neurotic, its effect unsettling, riveting and deeply moving.
Some productions treat Marty as remorseless to the end, an embittered and nihilistic vixen whose many years of life have left generations of male hearts broken and her own impenetrably stony. Other productions take a more feminist tack, portraying her as teenage victim of a dodgy science experiment and stoic survivor of three centuries of dysfunctional relationships. Certainly, Janáček’s score, angular and fragmented in its first acts, allows her genuine tenderness by the finale.
No matter how she’s drawn, the success of any Makropulos production depends on the strength of its leading lady. Swedish soprano Ylva Kihlberg is a relatively unfamiliar name in these parts and so tackles Opera North’s new production with a clean slate. Featuring stage direction by Tom Cairns – company regular and moderate risk-taker – and with excellent company director Richard Farnes presiding over the pit, The Makropulos Case is a clear highlight of EIF’s classical line-up.
The Makropulos Case, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, 0131 473 2000, 11, 13 Aug, 7.15pm, £16–£68.