Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Makropulos Case, Bavarian State Opera, 21 May 2016

Image: Bayerische Staatsoper, © Wilfried Hösl

Nationaltheater, Munich

Emilia Marty – Angela Denoke
Dr Kolenatý – Gustáv Beláček
Vítek – Kevin Conners
Krista – Rachael Wilson
Albert Gregor – Pavel Černoch
Jaroslav Prus – John Lundgren
Janek – Aleš Briscein
Hauk-Šendorf – Reiner Goldberg
Chambermaid – Deniz Uzun

Stage Technician – Peter Lobert
Cleaning Lady – Heike Grötzinger

Arpád Schilling (director)
Márton Ágh (designs)
Tamás Bányai (lighting)
Miron Hakenbeck (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Tomáš Hanus (conductor)

Opera houses’ neglect of Janáček remains one of the most baffling of the many baffling aspects of the ‘repertoire’. At least three of the composer’s operas would be perfect introductions to the art form: Jenůfa, Katya Kabanova, or The Cunning Little Vixen would surely hook most for life. From the House of the Dead might do likewise for someone of a rather different disposition, sceptical of opera’s claims and conventions. The Makropulos Case perhaps falls somewhere in between, although surely closer to the more ‘conventional’ trio, an unusual story notwithstanding. At any rate, no Janáček opera outstays its welcome. Every one is musically and dramatically interesting, without – save, arguably, in the case of From the House of the Dead – being ‘difficult’ (a silly concept, anyway, but let us leave that on one side). There are strong, central female characters in most (again, not in his final opera, but...) And yet…

What, then, is the problem? Is it simply that the works are in Czech? Is there still resistance to following titles, from those of us who do not have the language? Perhaps, although how many in the audience actually have an understanding, let alone a good one, of other, more typically-used languages? Translation is, perhaps even more than usual, a bad idea, since the music depends so much on Czech speech rhythms. One can tell that, even when one does not know the language. I mention that here, since a great virtue of this particular performance was the ability to follow the words (with German titles). The sounds are important, but it is not just a matter of sound. In conjunction with the orchestra, this made sense, even for those of us having to rely upon our memories and upon the titles.

First and foremost to be thanked for that excellent, indeed crucial, outcome must be conductor Tomáš Hanus. His direction of the equally (at least!) excellent Bavarian State Orchestra left us in no doubt that not only did the conductor know where he was taking us, and how to do so, but that just the right balance was struck between the demands of the moment, of the intricate relationships between words and music, between vocal line and orchestra, between melodic and harmonic impulses, were being observed and, above all, dramatically communicated. The golden sound of the orchestra – again, perhaps, like the Czech Philharmonic in a recent concert performance of Jenůfa, more Bohemian than Moravian, but none the worse for that – was no mere backdrop, but a musico-dramatic cauldron from which words emerged and in whose self-transforming broth they acquired their meaning and impulse. The disjunctures were not sold short either; they held their dramatic ground, without being fetishised.

Angela Denoke had also played E.M. – or whatever we wish to call her – in the Salzburg Festival performance I heard in 2011. Dramatically, Denoke’s performance here in Munich was at least as fine as in Salzburg; she remains an excellent singing actress. Vocally, however, it was, if anything, superior, with few of the occasional flaws of five years ago. The virtues of the orchestral performance were also her virtues. So indeed were they of the rest of the cast. Brno-born tenor, Pavel Černoch offered an Albert Gregor of what seemed to me (again with the caveat that I am not a Czech-speaker) of vocal beauty and verbal acuity in equal measure, his stage presence just as impressive. His first-act dialogue with Emilia Marty proved one of the musical and dramatic highlights of the performance. Gustáv Beláček and Kevin Conners impressed with their difficult legal performative briefs. John Lundgren’s darkly ambitious Jaroslav Prus and Rachael Wilson’s bright-toned Krista were similarly noteworthy. Aleš Briscein’s Janek furthered the excellent impressions given in that concert Jenůfa, his crestfallen withdrawal from the Marty game a study in musico-dramatic observation and communication. And how wonderful to welcome back Reiner Goldberg to the stage as Hauk-Šendorf: so much more than a mere ‘character’ appearance. Character and artist similarly rolled back the years: a moving moment indeed, not least given the opera in question.

I have left Arpád Schilling’s production until last, because I do not have much to say about it, I am afraid. The principal impression is made by Márton Ágh’s stylish designs, both sets – for instance, a visually arresting pile of chairs – and costumes, Černoch’s Gregor thereby enabled to look very much as he sounded. Of a concept, let alone a Konzept, beyond that, I struggled to discern anything very much. This, then, is stage direction of the kind operatic reactionaries claim to like: non-interventionist and pretty, if a little too modern in its style for them. The work could (sort of) speak for itself, I suppose, but that is hardly the point. Christoph Marthaler delved deeper in Salzburg.



Alexander said...

By the end of July, I shall have managed to see all five of Janacek's major works during the current season; but only two of them in Britain. It is extraordinary how rare they seem to be at the moment, with the exception of Jenufa (and even that has been absent from Covent Garden for years). I can't think of any other composer, apart from Mozart and Wagner, who deserves to be more central to the operatic repertoire. I think the Czech may be a problem (someone at Opera North told me they gave Janacek in English because to do otherwise would narrow their casting pool unacceptably). But Scottish Opera has just given us a decent Rusalka in Czech and that sound very idiomatic to me (admittedly, like you, a non-Czech speaker), especially in the comic roles.

I'm glad you enjoyed Tomáš Hanus' reading of the score - he led a superbly tumultuous Kabanova which I was able to catch in Oslo last September. I'm very pleased that he will be Welsh National Opera's music director from September, so maybe he'll bring Czech opera more regularly into British houses, albeit not in London. WNO has lovely productions of Vixen (David Pountney) and of Jenufa and Kabanova (Katie Mitchell) which certainly merit regular revival.

Incidentally, if you can ever slot it in, I commend to you the current Prague National Theatre production of From the House of the Dead, which I saw a week ago in the course of a rewarding tour of Eastern German and Czech opera houses. I personally wasn't convinced by the staging, but I think it might well have a more positive effect on you.

Mark Berry said...

Thank you, Alexander! Especially for the Prague recommendation. I don't really understand the casting issue: surely there must be at least as many non-Czech speakers who have learned or would be willing to learn the roles in Czech as there would be people willing to (re-)learn a Czech role in English...?

NY Bookfile said...


"What, then, is the problem? Is it simply that the works are in Czech?"

No, I think it's something else. In Janáček's penultimate opera we have art of considerable subtlety, and its effect on the listener is likely to be variable. Many opera fans are still repelled by its rough, declamatory style. In a sense, it takes a gifted listener to make sense of Janáček's jagged, naturalistic rhythms, and his telegraphic melodic style. It requires an agile mind, and a developed ear to respond to its real nature.

Alexander said...

But, NY Bookfile, I don't think our esteemed host was commenting on the rarity of Makropulos specifically; he was rightly pointing out that Janacek's work overall is rarer than it should be on our stages. Surely the major operas ought to be given pretty much as frequently as the great Mozarts or Wagners?

Mark, in answer to your earlier comment, surely it must take longer to learn a role in a language with which one is unfamiliar than to learn it in translation into one's native tongue? To a certain extent, learning to sing Janacek in Czech must mean learning Czech itself, and given that there are only a handful of Czech operas in the international repertoire, it's an investment of time many singers might be reluctant to make. The same applies, alas, to Russian, since really only Boris Godunov, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades qualify as standard repertoire, which might explain why we get intermittent stagings of Cilea and Giordano, but none of Glinka or Cui.

The problem must be even worse for languages with only one or two important operas, which may be why it took King Roger so many decades to get to Covent Garden, or why I had to go to Copenhagen to see Nielsen's Saul and David last summer.