by Martin Brisland.
The Makropulos Affair (1926) confronts the question: ‘if you could live forever would you really want to?’
I thought I knew opera, having seen many productions of all the classic works, but never one by Janáček. In fact, I have avoided his work so far thinking it too impenetrable. Now I want to experience more of his work.
Even today when Janáček’s operas have entered the mainstream repertoire, the bizarre Makropulos Affair from 1926 remains a rarely performed piece. Yet it is an absolute must-see triumph for the Welsh National Opera and its music director Tomáš Hanus, a Janáček expert who has co-edited the latest edition of the score. Hanus was born in Brno in the Czech Republic, the town where Janáček spent most of his life.
In Janáček’s penultimate opera the action revolves around the Greek heroine, Emilia Marty. She has swallowed an elixir and is now more than 300 years old. She stays young by constantly reinventing herself, shades of Dr Who! The opera’s plot is complex yet in essence is straightforward as it explores the folly of seeking immortality.
Originally named Elina Makropulos, as a 16-year-old in 1585 she had been persuaded by her father to take a potion that would trigger eternal life. After numerous fresh identities, always with the initials E.M, we meet her in the present (in this instance the 1920s) as the jaded Emilia Marty.
Her search for the potion’s formula leads her to an encounter with a century-old legal dispute over an inheritance. From a will she will rediscover the means to her immortality. Yet exhausted by living too long and yearning for mortality, she rejects the formula and dies in a blaze of glory accompanied by some of Janáček’s most radiant music.
Emilia Marty’s reunion with a former lover ends with her kissing his neck like the bride of Dracula. It’s a clear reference to the living dead from the Transylvanian legend.
When Emilia declared her soul had died within her, Blancas Gulin enabled us to feel the full force of her predicament, able to live forever but finding no joy in doing so.
Around her are seasoned performers: Nicky Spence as the smitten Albert Gregor, Mark le Brocq the flamboyant solicitor Vítek, and Alan Oke is comedy gold as a tottering Count.
The best is saved to last where Marty discards her emptiness and suddenly erupts into passionate emotion, contradicting her claim that her soul has died.
The Götterdämmerung of the closing scenes, with its wonderful warmth strangely complemented by a jagged orchestration, is one of the great original moments in all opera. Marty is a cold character but the performance of Ángeles Blancas Gulin is beyond praise. It is superbly controlled, deeply moving and we weep for the humanity she has lost. Angeles Blancas Gulin totally owned the stage in the lead role. Some can sing, some can act but few can do both as well as her.
I left with many reflections on mortality and what our lives are for.
Tickets for the WNO”s final opera of their run at Mayflower Theatre, Migrations (November 26) are on sale at mayflower.org.uk or 02380711811
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