Susan Bennett reviews a Captioned Performance of 'The Makropulos Case' by by Leos Janacek, produced by Opera North for The Lowry in Manchester.
Take a beautiful soprano called Marty who is deadly attractive to men, so much so that she sleeps with one Count while we watch, is visited by another Count who she had a relationship with fifty years ago and who is now regarded as lunatic, makes two others - nay three including the stage hand - love her obsessively all in the space of a first meeting.
One of these love sick men commits suicide because his father the first Count, sleeps with Marty, the other turns out to be her great, great many times grandson by another Count, grandfather of the current Count that she slept with over a hundred years ago, and the stage hand is merely a stage hand.
Whoa, whoa I hear you say – a hundred years ago? Well Marty, played by a Swedish soprano Ylva Kihlberg, is 337 years old.
Confused? Well join the club. If I hadn’t read in the programme the longest synopsis of an opera ever, and attended the pre-performance talk, then written down all these relationships family tree fashion on the back of an envelope then I would have been hopelessly truly confused. As it was I still had trouble sorting out who was related to who and how as the action galloped on leaving no prisoners.
And it certainly wasn’t what I expected from opera for it is far from tuneful. It has been described as a ‘brilliant acerbic score’ but was well executed by David Greed the Orchestra leader – a mysterious presence sunk deep in the pit with only his hands waving in the glow of footlights. Janacek himself was constantly refining details and this opera took him three times as long to compose as any other.
One of the problems for me was the vast amount of dialogue sung recitative fashion. Intonation is distorted, making it hard to make out against the constant raucous presence of the orchestra. We were warned that we would find the captions mounted on either side of stage a help and many of the audience like me needed to keep one eye on them all the time.
But they were also a distraction. For when a rare and particularly musical section appeared, the caption: ‘Please order me scrambled eggs for breakfast,’ broke the mood somewhat. English is so clinical and I yearned for the blissful ignorance that comes with Italian.
Set wise, there are some subtle and clever touches by designer Hildegard Bechtler. The first scene in lawyer’s office is lit blue, the second backstage at the opera is red and the final act in a hotel bedroom is gaudy gold. The 1950’s setting allows Marty to wear some gorgeous gowns and the scenery to be stark. There are swift acts, and all is over in two hours including the interval. Indecent haste you may say and I would agree. For me the last act could have been less of a rush, played to reveal rather than tell in a drunken plurge as Marty dances unconvincingly up and down on a bed in a hotel suite pouring spirits down her throat.
The opera, written in 1923, was based on a play by Karel Capek written in 1922. The plot revolves round a court case where the two great, great many times great grandsons, one illegitimate and the other not, fight out a court case over who should inherit the estate as the original Count did not leave a Will. But the central theme of the opera is the ability to enjoy life only because you know it is short. Janacek said in a letter to his lover, who was thirty eight years his junior which perhaps explains why he was so pre occupied with age, expectations, and love, ‘ We’re happy because we know our life is not long. So it’s necessary to make use of every moment, to use it properly. It is all hurry in our life – and longing.’
Of Marty he said, ‘That woman – the 337 year old beauty – didn’t have a heart anymore.’ In this is message for us all, citizens as we are of a commercial culture which values physical perfection, appearance, the cult of youth and vanity.
The Lowry in Salford have regular captioned, signed and audio described performances throughout the year and for this they are to be congratulated. It is a splendid venue with excellent acoustics, helpful staff and accessible. Go to www.thelowry.com/ for further details.