Janacek: The Makropulos Case

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 22 September 2010 4 stars

FaustA suited bureaucrat sits in a mausoleum of a corporate atrium, meditatively chewing on a sandwich. A shoal of papers burst suddenly from the ceiling, eddying as they swim through the air and spread themselves across floor, table and chairs. The bureaucrat, unmoved, continues eating. Christopher Alden's production of Janacek's The Makropulos Case is a riot of symbolist visuals and the surreal. Anchored by psychological realism, it was a hit on its first outing back in 2006 and now stages a polished return with Sir Richard Armstrong in the pit and Amanda Roocroft making her role debut as the mercurial Emilia Marty.

Alden's production is by no means a safe bet, living (or dying) in the tensions it establishes between Janacek's most exotic score, the restrained art-deco angularity of Charles' Edwards' set, and the allusive excess of its dramatic gestures. For a tale that could so easily function as a period thriller with a twist of a supernatural ending, Karel Capek's story takes surprisingly well to its newly blurred lines.

We open in the midst of opera's answer to Jarndyce versus Jarndyce – the thirty-year-old lawsuit between the duelling family branches of Gregor and Prus. Promising to provide proof that will settle the case in favour young Albert Gregor is the mink-swathed figure of Emilia Marty, a beautiful opera singer previously unknown to the family. Her eagerness to help, it soon emerges, is driven by her own desire to obtain possession of a mysterious Greek document. Captivating all the men she encounters (even provoking worship from elderly lawyer Kolnaty's daughter Kristina) Marty reveals herself to be a destructive force, shattering relationships, secrets and even temporality in her uncanny knowledge of the past.

The orchestral prologue sets the tone for the evening's music, as lush and colourful a piece of scoring as Janacek ever wrote. Drawing his forces together after a slightly scrappy start (horns especially seemed a little at odds) Sir Richard Armstrong delivered a strikingly direct account of the music, his love of Janacek evident in the bright, forward interjections of wind and percussion, set against the support of a dense string sound. Balance settled through the evening, but I would have loved a little more presence from the ominous muted brass at the start, the anti-fanfare that heralds Emilia's first appearance.

FaustThe acid brights of oboes and tuned percussion provide all the colour that is so elegantly denied by Charles Edwards' set. Chrome, marble and glass create a suitably Soviet take on Art Deco, and a single set frames the entire action. Small spatial concessions are made to suggest the office, theatre and bedroom of the story, but neither we nor Marty herself are allowed to escape, visually mirroring the endless repeating cycles of Marty's various lives.

One of Alden's more striking recurring images are the crowds of faceless men in suits (an understated nod to Magritte, surely) who observe and pursue Marty, at times all but trampling her in their obsessive determination. By giving the male chorus (silent until the final act) so significant a presence, Alden tweaks the implications of a story whose original censure falls so heavily on the agent provocateur of Marty. Here, the reincarnated Elina Makropulos becomes the victim of men – first that of her father (and his monarch's) experiments with life-prolonging elixir, and subsequently exploited and reduced by her encounters with sons, husbands and lovers. She remains brittle, cold and changeable, but there is a vulnerability here too – highlighted particularly in the disturbing closing mime – that is unusual.

It is inevitable that Roocroft should dominate any discussion of the singing. Following on from her Olivier Award-winning turn as Jenufa, she here expands her Janacek territory with a poised and technically assured turn as Marty. Her acting has always been strong, but when allied to a role so physically and vocally suited to her, it becomes particularly potent. Moving from Dietrich-esque brooding through the vivacious passion of her reprised role as Eugenia Montez, to the increasingly deranged ramblings of Elina Makropulos, she retains a vocal connectedness – spinning legato from the most disjunct and highly characterised of lines – that is easily a match for Armstrong's violins.

Among a strong supporting cast, particular mention must be made of Laura Mitchell's Kristina. Dramatically a little under-powered (though perhaps deliberately eclipsed by Roocroft's Marty), she produced a shining, rounded tone with diction that was close to faultless. Matched for youthful power by Peter Hoare's Albert Gregor, she was only outdone by Ryland Davies (as elderly, addle-minded lover Hauk-Sendorf) for dramatic pathos.

With a story hinging on a 339-year-old woman, a production where dead bodies casually fall through curtains, and a single monolith of a set, The Makropulos Case could so easily have been a disaster. As it is, Christopher Alden's production looks set to become a classic benchmark, its intelligence and conceptual daring bringing out the provocative elements both of score and text. Worth seeing for Roocroft alone, the drawback of this revival is the brevity of its blink-and-you'll-miss-it run.

By Alexandra Coghlan

Photos: Neil Libbert