nakro cast

 Picture: Richard Hubert Smith

The Makropulos Affair

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


Why was Welsh National Opera's singing and staging of Janáček's The Makropulos Affair so gripping, so sensitive, so outstanding?

Conceive of yourself living, with its pluses and minuses, for over 300 years: definitely a record. A deeply cultured, very experienced, wise and knowledgeable musical friend of mine, a critic himself and resident for many years in Cardiff, put it to me a day or so ago: "Have you ever seen a WNO staging that isn't of the highest quality? But rather, time and again, simply superb? The tops?"

True, I have sat through a couple that struck me as a bit duller: a rather tired (but by then, to be fair, much revived) Madam Butterfly; an early (not their recent) Eugene Onegin.

But I perceived what my friend so rightly meant: that vast number of WNO's operas he could justifiably cite as superb: Richard Jones's unforgettable The Queen of Spades; Katie Mitchell's Katya Kabanova, again a beauteous, poignant WNO sortie into Janáček, the composer they've chosen, third time round, for the 2022-3 season.

Poulenc's Dialogue of the Carmelites; Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron;. Engelbert Humperdinck's (not the pop singer, though the latter appropriated the name) Hansel and Gretel, so justly praised to the skies; a truly fabulous, deeply sad Billy Budd; or their utterly remarkable Donizetto triple, all based on English history (he liked British yarns, and especially the novels of Sir Walter Scott). The list runs on - endlessly.

I could supplement Rex Harley's perceptive list above (before I cheer on - as top-notch - Cardiff's latest visit to our own Birmingham Hippodrome (bringing The Makropulos Affair). WNO has done its bit, marvellously, for the modern. Hence my own chosen WNO rarities: John Metcalf's intense, and to my mind masterly (and icy!) Tornrak, which I reviewed ecstatically in The New Statesman: has it been revived yet?

count and Emileia

Alan Oke as dotty ex-solicitor Count Hauk Sendorf and Ángeles Blancas Gulin as Emilia Marty.

 Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's The Doctor of Myddfai, immersed in mid-Welsh folklore; American composer Jake Heggie's spellbinding first opera Dead Man Walking; Hans Werner Henze's equally first (one-Act) Boulevard Solitude; exquisite piano soloist André Tchaikowsky's only stage wonder The Merchant of Venice - thanks to David (now Sir David) Pountney, WNO's former Artistic Director 2011-19 (getting him was a magnificent coup for this superlative Company), shared with Bregenz, the Lake Constance-straddling. impeccable west Austrian Opera Festival, unusually abutting both Germany and Liechtenstein.

Append to this unbelievable (and in WNO's case, unfaultable list (background yet again, with apologies, before I applaud their masterful, and at least their third, third Janáček. Jenůfa was naturally their first success with Janáček): Ian Bell's immensely bold, daring handling of Welsh poet David Jones's In Parenthesis. Or - here's a wonder, just perfect for WNO's children - Hans Krasa's gloriously inspired (and inspiring), ironically - yet tragically - carefree Brundibar ('Bumblebee'), though he's a shopkeeper, not the fluttering type; and of course the kids triumph!), which originated in Hitler's (once Mozart & Joseph II-era Austrian deep-ditched, red bricked-up prison camp), Theresienstadt or Terezín, in outlying northern Czechoslovakia, purloined by the Nazi's as a prison showpiece, and from which most of the cast and creatives were in 1944 sped on to Auschwitz.

Phew! Some record! How on Janáček does WNO keep serving up such terrific goods? You have to doff your cap at this company's opera chorus - both their singing and their meticulously rehearsed stage presence. WNO's huge ensemble has long been recognised as Britain's finest, and most full-blooded, even as far back as the great Nicholas Payne's era (he started out as their Finance Director): excelling in, for example, especially in their dazzling 1990s Argo recording under Sir Charles Mackerras Britten's at first (in Coronation year, 1953) derided Gloriana (a libretto so absorbing - an overwhelming lead from (Dame) Josephine Barstow: its libretto Donizetti should have pinched - and virtually did grab.)


Harriet Eyley as Krista

A good many Czech operas hinge on libretti by some superb Czech women playwrights of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: their equivalent and equal of, say, Ibsen or Strindberg: Eliška Krásnohorská; Gabriela Preissová; Marie Červinková-Riegrová; Anežka Schulzová.

As it happens, Janáček himself (1854 to 1928) was not a Bohemian (i.e. mainstream, western Czech) but from Moravia, historically a fragment of the Habsburg (Austrian) Empire, then the middle segment of Czechoslovakia, 1918-1992 (minus a split forced by the Nazis); and now the eastern section of today's Czech Republic, capital Brno, with its own strong feeling of cultural and social individuality.

However Janáček's text here (with some modifications by the composer) stemmed from a very recent (1922) work by Czech (male) writer Karel Čapek's triumphant play The Makropulos Case (Věc Makropulos, premiered in Prague, November 1922, legitimately translated here as The Makropulos Affair. Copyright issues quickly resolved, Janáček was able to start on this stage masterpiece just a year later, finishing it ain 1925. His first, and still best known, international success was R.U.R (rel Čapek. "Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti', a dystopian work about a bad day at a factory populated with sentient androids. That, staged only a year earlier (1921), gives a taste of the kind of genre he (and certain other mid-European writers) excelled at.

It seems, at the outset of this opera, to be a classic, essentially Expressionist treatment of a solicitor's office mulling, with entertaining difficulty (Čapek dubbed his play 'a comedy'), over a disputed ancient inheritance row between two families (actually by now distant descendants of one family), dating back to the 17th century: a nightmare of paperwork to unravel.

The 'office' aspect, sometimes involving some disgruntled employee with no obvious means of escape,, is quite common. Compare David Sawer's fine, and again I fear unrevived, ENO opera From Morning to Midnight, after the significant German Satirist and Expressionist, Georg Kaiser. I suppose Scrooge (wondrously evoked by Adrian Edmonson currently starring at Stratford's RSC until Sunday 1st January - but, alas, almost entirely sold out) - bullying till the unexpected end impoverished, put-upon Bob Cratchit, might fall into this category.

The opera's, and the play's real story? It emerges, gradually, that there is something deeply unsettling about the domineering central character, obviously Greek (in fact from Crete), Emilia Marty (the strong-toned, vivid Spanish soprano Angela Blancas). Marty, (we may infer the 1920s), is a top-flight actress, indeed a megastar, who seems to know more than she lets on.

The Makropoulos affair, so brilliantly captured by WNO, becomes, in fact, a sort of detective tale hinging on not just (as usual) deaths, paperwork galore, wills and last intentions, but puzzlingly, bizarrely, on longevity.

Krista again

Krista with Janek sung by Alexander Sprague

 Čapek's work as a whole, like writers of the Tens and Twenties across Europe, was frequently concerned with presenting the surreal, the mechanical, the socially and politically challenging, the speculative as against the scientific.

So here's why the tale, absorbingly, evolves. Imagine living to not just 100 years old, but thrice that. At 37, back in the early 17th century, Emilia has ingested a drug or potion that guarantees her 300 more years of life. Now, in the early 20th, she's approaching her last call. As she arrives at 337, by the opera's conclusion, she collapses and dies - possibly the moment, I'd say, not entirely convincing in this staging by the wonderfully capable Olivia Fuchs (ENO, the ROH, National Opera Studio, Longborough, plus younger players at Music Colleges north and south). One boob: Marty's clumsy (dying) final tumble proved a disastrous bathos; even laughable.

Yet in all her opera-making, Fuchs always brings to bear - or just possibly - a special talent. She is, we learn, perpetually interested in examining 'the complexities of our time by matching them with a bold, psychologically rigorous (and deeply expressive, even poetic) approach' to manipulating storytelling.

Thus she strives (although surely like other directors and the operas themselves what of Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi?) "to highlight the human condition, our relationships to ourselves, each other, and the natural world" (well, doesn't The Cunning Little Vixen? Rusalka?)'. More importantly (says her biog.), Fuchs adopts a "collaborative approach and physical methodology" (think of Peter Brook, Nicholas Hytner, Deborah Warner, Phyllida Lloyd, Gregory Doran) so as explore "the transformative power of opera to make change". Here? Not entirely relevant.

But of course, before her (we gradually gather, predictable) demise, Emilia Marty is the one person who was alive at the time of the historically disputed, now impossibly belated, not entirely penned will (a lot of money, property, wealth); who knew the original characters, and original bequeathal, has witnessed the tussles then, hence apparently (in fact) has the authentic key to it all.

Not that anyone on stage initially knows this, or why and how she possesses this knowledge: which is not, of course, automatically received as the whole, or genuine, truth. She looks, and behaves, normally enough.

If it's all (deliberately) a somewhat fangled tale, perhaps consciously related (one might argue) to mid-19th century Russian stageworks: with Kát'a - English usually Katya -WNO have, for instance, staged Ostrovsky).

emilia and Albert

Emilia with  Albert Gregor sung by Nicky Spence

Janáček was right: it certainly transfers into good opera. There are some dozen characters to cast (even the bustling mezzo maid/cleaning woman - was, both voice and pottering, a brief treat). She's naughtily unnamed by both playwright and composer. Socialistic George Bernard Shaw wouldn’t have permitted that (ambitious Louka, unambitious Nicola), or Chekhov (pushy Yasha, doddering, Firs, proud, silly Dunyasha). Shame!

But not one of these legalistic or claimant underdogs gave anything but their all: Well done WNO! What a gathering of the vocally superb! Nicky Spence (Albert Gregor, descended from one set of the original claimants), Gustav Belacek (shrewder Lawyer Dr. Kolenaty), vexed solicitor Mark Le Brocq and his office colleague Vitek (the impoverished, small children-surrounded, put-upon Bob Cratchit of this show, not one fell short.

One star was the redoubtable David Stout - a Baron from the Prus (doomed to fail) side of the family descendants, yet still in 1922; the rival claimant. Alexander Sprague sings the rottenly pushy Stout's son Janek. Vocally, without exception, this cast was galvanising.

 It all proved magnificent, and - largely thanks to Olivia Fuchs' overall so expert control - their acting matched their spellbinding voices.

Could one pick out two? The delicious Harriet Fyley in the lesser but salient role of Krista (the clerk's daughter: what a gorgeous, finely restrained, beautifully tender and alluring voice); plus surely the fabulously versatile Alan Oke as dotty ex-solicitor Count Hauk Sendorf- a character recalling Russia's crazy Gogol or sophisticated Chekhov; Oke remaining, on every stage appearance, so stunning and amazingly versatile since (originally, I think. at Leeds' Opera North) he abandoned baritone for his wonderful, rich tenor roles, and whose loony, bonkers, crazy, obsessed interventions - the comedy Čapek talked of - were simply glorious.

Emilia Marty wins out, but only just in time. She has appeared in her final year, specially to resolve this age-old row over inheritance she has always known about; and she does so - thus Albert Gregor, Kolenaty's client, at last come out on top.

But she, Emilia, must die, her extra 300 year span since she swallowed the magic, life-extending potion being up. Marty's - Angela Blancas's - after this generous terminal act is, to the last second, and as destiny demands, to perish. She's still even in this final scene domineering, a diva and a bossy cow (and Blancas, perhaps a fraction loud, but that’s surely the point) pulls off this largely obnoxious, yet somehow attractive, role terrifically and smashingly well.

But she collapses (an exception ally feeble pairing between her and the curtain's descent, as I have said). It doesn't matter too much. With WNO's astounding, inspiring, prodigious (he's a regular in Vienna) Music Director, Tomáš Hanus at the helm, a pupil of the late, great Jiří Bělohlávek, and now embarked on his seventh Cardiff-based season.

Hanus is himself from (wait for it) Janáček's home city of Brno. He must know all the composer's operas backwards, from Janáček's first, Šarka (1887, but much revised, and not quite as extraordinary, Not as riveting, I (perhaps others) would argue, as his contemporary Zdeněk Fibich's amazing version of the same legend - with its Tristan and Isolde-emulating central Act.

And thence to Janáček's last, From The House of the Dead, after Dostoevsky (Simon Rattle has recently conducted shattering concert performances in Berlin; and WNO staged it superbly, thanks largely to its stupendous chorus massed most cleverly on several different levels, some seasons ago; hardly surprising that under Hanus' baton this Makropulos Affair (surely in correct Greek, Makropoulos) should prove so excellent, so inspiringly and intelligently managed, timed, balanced, its tiny motifs juggled around (another marvellous musician but Baroque-focused friend complained, "but there are no tunes'. My reply: 'I've heard nothing but tunes"). Loads of meaningful, related snippets, at least.

No, like all WNO's stagings, this was a corker. What a treat.

Roderic Dunnett


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