Opera North’s Makropoulos Case

16 Nov

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks, but I’m now up in Newcastle to sample the latest set of Opera North’s new productions.  I saw Makropoulos Case on 15th November.
I like Opera North very much.  They may not have the same sheer glossiness of their London colleagues but, at their best, there’s an excitement, a sense of experimentation and daring which can produce some seriously exciting and gripping theatre.  They tend also to be good at Janáček – a composer who is as interested in the drama and the characters as in beautiful singing and who lends himself to daring productions.  Their Katya Kabanova, Cunning Little Vixen and  From the House of the Dead have been among the finest performances of those operas that I’ve seen.
I felt this Makropoulos Case was not quite at the same level.  For much of the performance, I found myself thinking what a difficult, elusive opera it is and I had the impression that much of the rest of the audience (it hasn’t been done here for almost 20 years) were a bit mystified by it.  It’s a portrait of EM – the 337 year old woman and a picture of someone who has seen everything, done everything and now feels little. Beside her, the other characters are midgets and it’s very difficult indeed to feel an interest in them or to care much about them.  There’s a lot of “plot” – a complex family history, documents that may or may not assist in the case and Janáček never really resolves who owns the estate.  Essentially, they become a device to explore EM and her reactions and approach.  Janáček’s operas are all concise and this is one where you feel that he could have given us more.

So a lot depends on the EM. And the finest productions have tended, I’ve felt, to be where companies have a star who wants to do the role – think of Barstow, Harries and Silja, who have each brought their own allure and fascination to the piece – so, in fact, nobody else matters much in the role.  Here, I felt that Opera North had decided that they wante to complete their Janáček cycle and had cast around for an EM.  Ylva Kihlberg has a CV which suggests that the role isn’t impossible for her but equally nothing to suggest that she was an obvious person for Opera North to hire.  Weren’t there others they could have tried – I’d love to see Amanda Roocroft, for example, have a go at it.

Ms Kihlberg was certainly not a disaster as EM.  She has a fine, powerful, grateful voice.  She sings extremely good, clear English and had an idea of the glamour of the role.  There was a marvellous moment at the end when she clearly regretted losing the recipe and, as it burned, reached out to try and stop it.  What I missed was an understanding of the egocentricity of the role and the sheer star quality that other singers have brought.  I missed the sheer watchabilitity that singers bring.

The support was strong.  Robert Hayward, in particular, conveyed the sleaziness beneath the respectability of Prus.  Paul Nilon sang strongly as Gregor but without conveying much about the role – there’s a suggestion in the text that he’s a bit of a wastrel and I didn’t get much of that or anything else from him.  James Creswell was a clear, intelligent, petty-minded Kolenaty – it’s good to see that he’s becoming a regular with the company.  Stephanie Corley did what she could with Kristina – one of Janáček’s least interesting female characters.  Hauk-Sendorf is a gem of a role and Nigel Robson, as you would expect, seized all the opportunities created by the one likeable character in the piece.  It wasn’t his fault that his scene with EM didn’t have quite the sense of wistful nostalgia on both sides that I’ve seen elsewhere.  Adrian Dwyer made a very promising Janek and Mark Le Brocq a very credible, clear Vitek.

The smaller parts create good opportunities for singers to shine and here, I thought they were outstandingly taken.  So particular plaudits for Matthew Hargreaves (Stage Technician), Sarah Pring (Cleaner) and Rebecca Affonwy-Jones (Chambermaid) who seized their opportunities really strongly and created convincing vignettes that were a pleasure to watch.

Tom Cairns isn’t one of my favourite directors and here I couldn’t help feeling that, while producing a perfectly adequate production, it didn’t have the clarity or sheer brilliance that other directors have brought.  Hildegard Bechtler’s set struck me as almost too busy and I found the comings and goings of the second and third acts a bit cramped and unclear.  There was nothing that you could put your finger on that was wrong with it, but it didn’t grip.

Richard Farnes’s conducted certainly did.  He had a sure grasp of the pace of the piece, accompanied his singers really well so that you could hear the words and appreciate the orchestral commentary.  He gave the final scene all the power and dynamism that it needed and the orchestra was on it Ring-standard form.

So this seemed to me to be a more-than-decent, good evening.  Most of the ingredients for success were there, but I didn’t leave the theatre particularly gripped or changed or convinced that this is a masterpiece by a great composer.  Judging by the comments, nor did most of the audience.  Rather, it was an interesting, perfectly good performance of a rather tricky curiosity.

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