Janacek - Vec Makropulos

Photo: Mamali Shafahi
ONP Bastille, Tuesday May 8, Monday May 14 2007

Conductor: Tomas Hanus. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets and costumes Malgorzata Szczesniak. Emilia Marty: Angela Denoke. Albert Gregor: Charles Workman. Jaroslav Prus: Vincent Le Texier. Vítek: David Kuebler. Krista: Karine Deshayes. Janek : Ales Briscein. Kolenaty: Paul Gay. Hauk-Sendorf: Ryland Davies. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Having seen this show once, we decided to go back and see it again for two reasons: first, it was such a good production that we wanted to take a (literally) closer look at the details; second, the performance on May 8 was musically ropier than I expected after reading rave reviews (chaotic orchestra with several wrong entries, some cracked notes on stage...) and we wanted to see if we'd just hit an off night.

Musically, May 14 was an improvement: the orchestra, though still occasionally unruly, was better-disciplined and the singers were on better form. In any case, this is probably one of the best casts you could hope for in this work; certainly, the first time I've ever heard it live with men anywhere near up to scratch. On previous occasions, it was up to Anja Silja to carry the opera on her shoulders practically unsupported. She has made the leading role her own, the risk being that, like Callas with Medea, Norma or Tosca, she nearly "kills" it for later generations. As it turns out, Angela Denoke's voice is, to my ear, reminiscent of Silja's 30 years back: strong, fairly hard and metallic and with a broad vibrato. And - again to my ear - it is better suited to Janacek than to the lusher Korngold. She doesn't have Silja's extraordinarily charismatic stage presence and makes for a rather chilly Emilia Marty, but she's nevertheless an outstanding and fearless (not afraid to bare her breasts on stage) singing actress and, even in the vast Bastille, carries it off without a wrong note.

Staging
Makropulos at the Bastille makes the demands of Janacek's difficult vocal writing almost monstrous. Charles Workman, surely slightly undersized for this part, though passionately committed and convincing, was audibly stretched to the very limits. As I've said before, I personally don't like the sound of his tight tremolo, but many people do, and for once the high notes were mostly there, not simply abandoned a couple of tones down. David Kuebler was more at ease and on the second night Vincent Le Texier (playing the swaggering, nouveau-riche slob to perfection) sang without a cracked note.

Karine Deshayes has a darker, rounder, fuller voice than we usually hear in her part, and should really now get bigger parts to sing.
Ales Briscein's Janek (youthful and blond-haired, in a multicoloured jacket, turquoise satin jeans and starred cowboy boots) was far better than usual and Ryland Davis played a charming old Hauk-Sendorf.

The production is one of the Bastille's great successes. The concept - Hollywood immortality, fragility and collapse; Emilia as a series of stars: Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Gloria Swanson...; beauty and the (King Kong) beast - works. The staging is a well-managed combination of broad, comprehensible brush-strokes (impressive, large-scale sets,
simple scene changes, the magic of "iconic" black & white films, supertitles as subtitles) attention to meaningful detail and flawless acting. The overall impression is of "intelligent design" carried through to coherent perfection.

As the opera begins, we are faced with the Bastille proscenium lined on either side with streamlined, rounded, art deco panelling in walnut, highlighted near the top with sleek strips of white neon. Three microphones are lined up in front of the generous folds of a huge blue curtain. This sweeps apart to reveal a cinema screen, and during the overture we see a montage of Hollywood scenes: Sunset Boulevard, King Kong, Marilyn with her famous pleated skirt blowing up... and newsreel footage of her decline and death.

The opening "talk" introducing the case is treated as Oscar-ceremony-style banter under old-fashioned spotlights in front of the curtain, leading up to the entry of the "star." As Krista enthuses about Emilia, lights go up behind the curtain and through it we see, high up at the back of the stage, Marilyn Monroe in a yellow pleated dress. The curtain parts to reveal the main set: a vast, raked art deco auditorium with rows of blue seats. Here, it's a courtroom, with a table and chairs for the lawyers to the front. Emilia/Marilyn advances down the central gangway, lit from beneath, and as she advances her skirt blows up over her head...

When Emilia is left alone with Albert, a second set slides in from the left to hide the auditorium: the gents' toilets, with a steel floor, a neat row of urinals each with a TV screen above, showing Emilia in close-up, and to the left, through a partition, a cubicle with a toilet. Emilia takes refuge in the cubicle to change into more casual clothes while she dialogues with Albert, at last showing signs of fatigue as she slumps on to the toilet to take off her shoes. Here, some of the detail in the acting is striking: Albert, as he gets worked up and sings "You arouse something frightening" has his hand down his dress trousers; kneeling by the partition separating him from Emilia, he reaches out slowly to touch it in a gesture to be repeated in act 2 by Janek and echoed in act 3 by Krista. Black and white film is projected during the scene change between acts.

In act 2, the auditorium has become a cinema and the characters watch one of Emilia's films, dotted around the seats, two of them with tubs of popcorn. The rear of the hall opens for Emilia's entry, an amazing coup de théâtre: she is borne in, now red-wigged as Rita Hayworth in a glittering green sheath dress, on the outstretched hand of King Kong, the largest prop ever made by the Opéra National, head, shoulders and arm full-size, with glowing red eyes and mouth. Once again, as she is left alone with swaggering Prus, a second set slides in, this time a bathroom with washbasin, a black chair and a bathtub, into which she eventually sinks to sleep. The rear wall is transparent, allowing us dimly to see the others waiting "in the wings" and Janek's outstretched hand. Again, she changes in sight; once in a little black dress zipped in part by Janek, then in full by his father, she slips off her underpants and hands them to Prus to clinch the deal. Once again, black and white film is projected between acts: this time, police and photographers crowding round as Gloria Swanson descends the stairs...

The bathroom set slides off to be replaced by Emilia's own (or a hotel) dressing room high up on the right, opening out to a swimming pool in blue mosaic, shown in section sloping down from the terrace. As the act turns into Emilia's moving final
scena (surely one of the greatest of all opera endings), the subtitles projected throughout the work now rise, undulating, from the pool in the dappled light, the giant King Kong appears again dimly at the rear, eyes aglow, and to the right, in the dressing room, Krista slowly puts on Emilia's abandoned Marilyn wig and white pleated dress. As Emilia sinks, exhausted, to her death in the pool, Krista is just prevented from grabbing the formula and renewing the cycle.

There's a fashion for Hollywood references at the opera these days, and a definite risk of overdoing the clichés, but Warlikowsky pulls it off. Even for a hardened non-cinema-goer like me, the Hollywood clips add glamour, magic and a touch of camp, and the irruption of King Kong an effective dose of the supernatural. From what I see on the web, we are now all waiting for the DVD, which should be a fine, recent version to add to the Glyndebourne classic with Silja.

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