Even in these days when Janáček’s works have entered the repertoire, The Makropulos Affair remains a relative rarity, a bizarre tale that requires a phenomenal singer on the inside. But its rarity should not discourage the public in Cardiff and on tour: it is in fact an unmissable triumph for the Welsh National Opera and its musical director Tomáš Hanus, expert on Janáček who co-edited the last edition of the score.
Emilia Marty is an opera star who, we learn little by little, has lived through the centuries. Like the teenager Elina Makropulos in 1585, she was subjected to an experiment to test a potion that extended her life. She has worked all too well: through a succession of identities, always with the initials EM, she emerges in the present (this production adopts the decade of her composition, the 1920s) as a weary survivor of the world. Despite the rediscovery of the recipe for the potion, she chooses extinction rather than renewal and the recipe is burned.
The story is based on a 1922 play by Karel Čapek; the emotionally driven direction is by Olivia Fuchs. Nicola Turner’s drawings frame the intensity of the piece: the first act is all gray filing cabinets and surreal floating legal pages, while Gregor’s old lawsuit against Prus is examined (the case leading to revelations of Emilia’s past); the second act behind the scenes of the opera is a bunch of red roses, Emilia’s red hair and her red dress; the third act for the epilogue of the hotel room is brilliant white, with endless white suitcases with the initials EM In each act, a clock signals the passage of time.
Emilia’s existence here is essentially a story of male exploitation, and around her is a group of hopeless men who are her slaves, vying for her attention. Baron Prus (David Stout), her son Janek (Alexander Sprague) and Albert Gregor (Nicky Spence) are all superbly idiomatic and strong. There is a wonderful cameo from Alan Oke as Count Hauk-Šendorf, an ancient lover.
Janáček’s pungent orchestration is so skillful and transparent, that it always allows voices to emerge in the plots, that I was beginning to have the heretical thought that singing it in English could have communicated the text more clearly than the Czech original. But then Mark Le Brocq as attorney Vitek took the stage to give an additional explanatory lesson on the plot in English, and everything was (quite) clear.
This opera is entirely centered on Emilia and Ángeles Blancas Gulin takes the part with total passion: she may not sing the role purely like some (like Elisabeth Söderström in the Charles Mackerras recording) but it is vividly drawn, with a touch of Glenn Close in the his operatic character. The lesson of Fuchs’ production is clearly that we interfere with the course of nature, the rhythm of life and death, at our peril: in her last desperate moments, with a shaved head, the accumulated tragedy of the many lives that Emilia has conducted is overwhelming.
Until Wednesday 28 September, then tours until 2 December. Tickets: wno.org.uk