From all tears to eternity

TLS Opera reviews, October 8th

Leos Janacek

Agostino Steffani
Covent Garden

No opera shines such a stark light on the incompatibility of human desire and eternal life as Leos Janacek’s Vec Makropulos. The singer-protagonist Emilia Marty is 337 years old; her great age may be the secret behind the legendary beauty of her voice, but it is also the reason for the shrivelling of her humanity into a destructive self-pity. “A 300-year-old beauty – but only burnt-out feeling!”, as Janacek put it, soon after seeing Karel Capek’s hit philosophical comedy at the end of 1922. “Cold as ice! But I’ll warm her up, so that people sympathize with her. I might fall in love with her myself.”

In any decent production of the opera, few could fail to fall in love with Emilia Marty. Christopher Alden’s staging, now revived for the first time by English National Opera (though for an inexplicably short run), is much more than merely decent: it is exemplary. And the sight of Amanda Roocroft’s Marty, alive to the realization that salvation can come only with her death, staggering about the stage as she tries to discard the recipe on which her long life depends, is pathetically moving. The sticky-paper device comes from the lower end of the comic spectrum, of course, and it flies in the face of Janacek’s own stage directions, yet its awkwardness captures the contradictory psychology of suicidal desire, reminding us that Marty’s power is something she has wielded over others, not controlled for herself.

Roocroft has been an excellent interpreter of Janacek for some time now, and her success here comes from bringing something of her portrayals of Jenufa and Katya to the ostensibly very different Emilia. The voice she uses still contains traces of the character as a fourteen year-old girl, the adolescent on whom her father, Dr Makropoulos, physician to Emperor Rudoph I of Bohemia, tried out his potion centuries ago. Alden’s direction takes its cure from this insight into Marty’s vulnerability, which has increased over time: now she seems barely to exist at all except in the gaze of her lovers. Hers is a ghostly permanence. The set – an airy office dominated by an enormous desk, filled with papers and flanked by a gallery of street windows through which Marty’s adoring fans peer with a palpable sense of menace – is unchanged for the three acts.

Janacek’s prima donna can carry the show, but Alden’s gradual shifting of sympathies toward Marty makes this Makropoulos more of an ensemble piece: one which requires significant contributions from the infatuated Gregor and Prus and the lawyer Kolenaty, provided respectively by Peter Hoare, Ashley Holland and Andrew Shore. I also enjoyed the veteran Welsh tenor Ryland Davies’s fluent turn as Hauk-Šendorf, Marty’s lover from her earlier incarnation as Eugenia Montez. Richard Armstrong, booked late in the summer to replace Charles Mackerras, conducted a house band on top form.

Perhaps Marty’s tragedy seems pale by comparison with that of Niobe, queen of Thebes, a monarch famously described by Hamlet as “all tears”. Most who know the myth at all (Niobe lusted after immortality and was turned to stone after seeing her fourteen children killed) will do so because of that Shakespearian reference, but few will likely be acquainted with Agostino Steffani’s opera on the subject. Or even with Agostino Steffani himself, a priest who served the courts of Munich and Hanover as a diplomat and as the composer of seventeen operas. Composed between 1680 and 1709, they enjoyed widespread fame during Steffani’s lifetime, but now occupy one of operatic fashion’s numerous blindspots.

Niobe’s visit to Covent Garden came while most of the Royal Opera were away in Japan. A cynic might suggest that the production, imported from Schwetzingen, is by way of a conjuring trick to keep the new season trotting along until the music director, orchestra and most of the principal artists return from the other side of the world. But such a cynic would need to be both blind and deaf not to enjoy either the dramatic spectacle or the wondrous sequence of carefully constructed arias by which it unfolds. The eighteenth- century composer and theorist Johann Mattheson remarked that Steffani was unusual in devoting such effort to laying out his operas, adding (in 1737) that “nowadays, when everything has to be done on the wing, there are few who take pleasure in exercising such deliberation”. But Steffani does, of course, and the hard work pays off.

The production is dominated by Véronique Gens – a star of seventeenth- and eighteenth- century repertoire and thoroughly imperious in the callous title role – and by the Polish male soprano Jacek Laszczkowski, who plays Anfione, her husband. Originally a castrato role, Anfione – who hands over the reins of power to his wife in order to answer his calling as a musician – is given some of the opera’s finest passages, including a long, ravishing evocation of the music of the spheres, “Sfere amiche”, in which his voice rises out of (and falls back into) unusually elaborate woven string textures. This is one of the work’s longest arias: most are short (very few are da capo), so that both music and drama gain momentum. The pace is kept up despite a peculiar subplot involving Tiresias’s daughter and a wandering prince of Alba which would be pointless were it not musically diverting. Like

Orpheus, Amphion, or Anfione, is a musician whose art transports him to the immortal realms – but transcendence comes at a price; Lukas Hemleb’s slick production cleverly emphasizes the manipulative, suspect side of musical persuasion. The two leads are ably supported, not least by Iestyn Davies’s powerful countertenor Creonte, and by the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble and its director, Thomas Hengelbrock.

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