Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Makropulos Case, ENO

I don't think it works and yet, I find myself deeply stirred. It's a bit like knowing you're walking up to the edge of one of those Escher staircases that don't make sense but stepping onto it anyway to find that it does. English National Opera's Makropulous Case revival seems occasionally either baffling or perverse but as it's never short of conviction - or, this time around, some pretty impressive singing - it somehow finds its mark.

Alden has a number of ideas but the principal one seems to be of text. The men populating the stage often step out of character to write on a blackboard - a historic timeline, a formula, the name 'Μακροπουλος'. Indeed at such moments the men often become ciphers, moving through the space with anonymity, as in Magritte

or, as it struck me, like hieroglyphs. This act of record and the intermittent transformation of characters to tableau (which, as hieroglyph, might be regarded as text) ties in with the profligate documents which, tumbling from the ceiling during the overture are never fully ordered and removed.

Elina Makropulos has initiated this paper trail not only by writing (and forging) documents but by her sexual acts, leaving a trail of lovers and children, or 'bastards', her words in Norman Tucker's translation. Witness of this wake is ever present. In the same way that the men fighting over the estate in Kolenatý's office will step out of character to represent something else so the waiting public at Makropulos' stage door might also be the ghosts of her past encounters. I liked the fluency with which Alden moves between the two, encouraging the audience to see these people from Makropulos' perspective; it's a chill view when a figure is easily interchangeable between person and mere trope.

Of course, this puts a lot of pressure on the role of Makropulos herself who can never become two dimensional, fixed in space and time. In purely charatcerisation terms Amanda Roocroft is all over this idea. She's far less reserved than, say, Anja Silja for Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Glyndebourne production but her impertinence and disdain serve Alden well. Additionally Roocroft is clearly singing very well, back to her formidable best after a previously equivocal Ellen Orford in this house.

The men are strong, with Andrew Shore and Ashley Holland completely solid. Notable though is Peter Hoare's Albert Gregor. Albert's a classic Janacek tenor role, unforgiving, without even the consolation of heroism to go with the helden-Fach that it often requires. Hoare manages a beauty in the sound that I wasn't expecting (although I've heard it before), which has the curious side-effect of making me wish he didn't have to undertake the same functional role as others in the cast.

Indeed the music - glorious music - is kept simmering but never boils under Richard Armstrong. This is another reason I found the whole thing puzzling. There are small balancing issues in the Coliseum which I suspect, given the extreme and tourettish nature of Janacek's music, are virtually impossible to resolve. However Alden's production does meet the erratic nature of the score as the action often has very sudden movements. Occasionally these were either not perfectly dovetailed or a certain caginess in the music meant that they were left exposed.

This is a nit-picking observation though, especially as I found myself hearing some wonderful things for the first time, perhaps as a result. The pianissimo secco percussion and harmonic strings to accompanying Makropulos dismissing the appeal of sexual intercourse is utterly chilling (there was laughter from the core of ENO's audience at the line - this is fair but there's more to be had from this opera).

Indeed this is a very adult opera, prepared to incorporate the sexual impulse into its very fabric but at the same time give the characters great lyrical scope to argue against it. An evening to reflect on and maybe encounter more than once.

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