Sunday 3 October 2010

ENO's The Makropulos Case, or, the importance of having benchmarks

Regular readers may have observed two facts about my opera-going.  First, that I have a bit of a bias for English National Opera and, particularly the Coliseum, over the Royal Opera and their House.  Second, that I have been rather critical of the present management at English National Opera.  Shortly before heading off to London last weekend, it struck me that I could conceivably manage to take in every production being mounted by English National Opera and that this would enable me to make perhaps a fairer judgement of the company's health, than is it strictly fair to do from a mere two or three productions a year.  In pursuit of this goal, therefore, I headed off last Sunday, for the second time in less than 24 hours to the Coliseum.  This time on the bill was the first revival of the season, Janáček's penultimate opera, The Makropulos Case.  Our fellow critics have, in general, raved about it.  Unfortunately, I cannot agree with them.  The production is unsatisfactory, and my benchmark musically for this opera is the original performances of this production under the late, great Sir Charles Mackerras in 2006 which this revival does not surpass.

Let us start with the production.  ENO has two other excellent new Janáčeks in its repertoire at the moment (productions of Jenufa and Katya Kabanova).  Both were particularly effective in their construction of the relationships between the characters.  Rather like Faust, this production is not infuriating but it is irritating, and in fact somewhat more so because rather more aspects of it are in conflict with the music.  My brother, in tweeting his memories of the 2006 production, noted the contradiction to the libretto at the end where Emilia Marty stumbles round the stage, the infamous formula stuck to her hand, rather than it being burnt as the directions stipulate.  This is actually a problem relating to the whole characterisation of Marty.  The text makes absolutely clear that she has to be a spell-binding presence until the top of the third act, with only occasional chinks in her armour.  In this production, the chinks are gaping holes – not least when she seems to have some kind of hot flush in the middle of Act One and goes reeling round the length of the stage.  I also didn't find Amanda Roocroft as commanding in the part as I recollect Cheryl Barker being in 2006.  Her diction becomes muddy under pressure and the link between sung text (often perfectly finely sung I concede) and action is not effectively brought off.

Next to this central problem the other irritations of the production are really just that, irritations.  I cannot see why the troop of men have to keep chalking up details of the case on the blackboard at the back when the nature of the story is perfectly clear from the sung text.  It is overly fussy and again detracts from the human collisions between the protagonists.  Similarly the profusion of flowers in Act Two and the cascade of legal papers falling across the stage at the beginning of the opera.  These at least have the merit of a textual justification but again it is fussy and undermines the emotional power of the piece.

Something also doesn't quite come off in the direction of the performers more broadly.  As often happens with revivals there is a lack of fluidity, a kind of acting by numbers feeling at certain points.  Thus when all the male characters line up against the left hand wall I was quite unable to see why they had done so, except that the revival director had instructed them that that was what was now supposed to happen.  Too often, performers seemed to be left standing about on different parts of the stage while the drama went on elsewhere with little sense of why they were there.

In 2006, much of this was transcended by the magnificent conducting of Sir Charles Mackerras.  In a number of his late performances there was a kind of extraordinary fire in the playing, something elemental and driving which picked you up at the start of the performance and held you in its grip through to the close.  Despite the fact that there is one less interval in this revival that fire is not there, perhaps it could not have been and it is unfair to judge Armstrong against so great a Janáček interpreter.  However, I think one should have benchmarks.  To give a little parallel, standing ovations on Broadway tend to be de rigour.  This has a tendency in my view to lessen our ability to really reward and celebrate greatness.  The simple fact is that Mackerras's death leaves a gap and that has to be acknowledged – Armstrong did not have the same overall conception of the score.

With respect to the other singers, diction was a great deal better than it often is at the Coliseum and they almost uniformly sang well.  But they, like Roocroft or Armstrong, were equally unable to get a real emotional punch past the fussy staging.  In the end, I was left feeling that rather like Faust, that this is a serviceable revival but not a great one, although of course it scores over Faust in having superb musical material to work with.

This brings us to one final point.  I mentioned in my review of Faust the fact that ENO are trumpeting the number of new productions being given this season.  There are in fact a mere four revivals.  Two of these are war horses of a pretty ancient vintage (reviving the Miller Mikado yet again, when it was hopelessly tired last time is particularly egregious).  Makropulos is of course of Berry vintage, Parsifal alone stands out.  This follows the pattern of recent seasons where it would almost seem as if, apart from Jonathan Miller, nobody else has produced anything at the company before Berry.  I have nothing against new and innovative stagings per se, but the rate of success has been disappointing given the large numbers mounted by the current management.  It seems a pity that more cannot be made of the rich ENO pre-Berry heritage.

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