The Makropulos Case

‘The 337 year old beauty had no heart anymore.” So wrote the Czech composer Leos Janácek on 28 December 1922 to Kamilia Strösslová, a married woman with whom he was passionately involved in a one-sided love affair. He was 68 and she was 31. The unrequited love inspired the most amazing flowering of music from the old man including the operas Katya Kabanova, the cunning little vixen and the Makropulos case to which he refers in the letter quoted above. It was to be his penultimate opera. Janácek died three years after it was finished.

The Makropulos Case at ENO - Amanda Roocroft ©Neil Libbert

The Makropulos is a convoluted story of a beautiful and famous opera singer Emelia Marty, desperate to recover the formula for the potion that had kept her young for over 300 years. Her father, court physician to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, had concocted the potion that rendered immortality at the emperor’s request. The suspicious emperor, fearful of death, feared the unknown even more and had made Elina Makropulos, the physicians’ daughter try it first.

Now, aged 339 and transmorphed into Emelia Marty, the elixir was wearing off and she was aging fast. The plot revolves round a 100 year old court case over a legacy in which Emelia, under her previous name of Elian MacGregor, one of several names she had taken on over the centuries, always with the initials EM, had been involved.

The Makropulos Case is about unrequited love, women with hearts of ice, fear of death, and fear of ageing. It is also about misplaced love when Gregor, Emilia’s great-great-great-great-grandson falls madly in love with her. Above all it is about time, endless time, time on your hand, time that you do, and don’t, want to end. And floating above all this is the love-object Kamilia, alias Emelia. How to show time in the theatre, endless time?

The Makropulos Case at ENO - Laura Mitchell and Alasdair Elliot ©Neil Libbert

The Vienna Volksoper production some years ago emphasized the insistent drumbeats of the overture by having a man upstage beating a huge drum mounted on a clock. That clock was there, upstage, in every scene, reminding us of time’s ever presence.

In Christopher Alden and Charles Edwards’ magical formula at the English National Opera’s revival of the 2006 production, paper documents rain down from the roof as the curtain rises to the drum beats, the accumulated documents of the century-long legal battle over ownership.

Again in act two, time stretches back when all EM’s previous lovers line up behind the row of rectangular glass doors peering in at her, as if in a memory. Later the present and past intertwine as hundreds of flowers send by admirers after the opera performance and brought in by new and old admirers intermingle, and are scattered by an angry Emelia. Edwards also uses a blackboard where the cast write the story in chalk as it unfolds and wipe it off just as Elina Macropolus and all the other EMs dissolved into one another.

The Makropulos Case at ENO - Amanda Roocroft ©Neil Libbert

Edwards’ use of light, the intense white light vertically from above, the light diffused and fragmented by the slightly opaque glass doors reflect the loneliness of beautiful Emelia, loved by almost everyone on stage but ‘already freezing with horror’ as Janácek put it in a letter to Kamila: ‘When she sees how happy we are, we who have such a short life… We look forward to everything, we want to make use of everything – our life is so short’.

She has an endless repeat to look forward to, like a tape loop, exemplified on stage by the identical suite of her present and past suitors. The impersonal décor-less, almost Kafka like, 1920’s set interchanges as the advocate’s office, Emelia’s changing room and the Baron Prus’s hotel room where Emelia sleeps with him to get at the Greek document with the formula.

The question of language always arises with Janácek who used the inflections of the Czech language as the prop for his music. But the acting, especially by Amanda Roocroft as the ageless, apparently cold, but intensely fragile Elina-Elian-Emelia, switching Mary Quant black and blond wigs, was so superb that the words ceased to matter.

The music just pulled you along. In this opera Roocroft showed herself as a great an actress who is a superb singer. She has already sung the lead roles in Janácek’s Jenûfa and Katya Kabanova on stage. In portraying Emilia Marty she excelled herself. The rest of the cast, especially Andrew Shore as Dr Kolentaty, Ashley Holland as the avaricious Baron Prus and Alasdair Elliot as Vítek were superb, among a generally excellent cast. Director Christopher Alden’s beautiful twist at the end brought tears in an unforgettable evening.

This is opera at its best – an experience that marries the aural, the visual and the emotional into an explosive mix. Unforgettable.

ENO’s revival of The Makropulos case will run till 5 October 2010.

Guest blogger Mohsen Shahmanesh

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