Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Janacek – The Makropulos Case


English National Opera 20 April 2006

Conductor – Sir Charles Mackerras

Director – Christopher Alden

Sets – Charles Edwards

Costumes – Sue Willmington

Lighting – Adam Silverman


Emilia Marty – Cheryl Barker

Dr Kolenaty – Neal Davies

Albert Gregor – Robert Brubaker

Vitek – John Graham Hall

Kristina – Elena Xanthoudakis

Baron Jaroslav Prus – John Wegner

Janek – Thomas Walker

Hauk-Sendorf – Graham Clark


From the moment that Janacek saw Capek's play, the enigmatic Elina Makropulos captured his attention. Within days he was writing about her to Kamila Stosslova “A woman 337 years old, but at the same time still young and beautiful. Would you like to be like that too? …she was unhappy – didn't have a heart anymore …”

In the rather surrealist setting of ENO's new production we see the world in half tones through Emilia/Elina's jaded eyes. She is at the centre of the action, constantly surrounded by eager admirers who dog her footsteps and queue up for a chance sight of her, but it's hard to find any distinguishing features amongst them. They are just part of an endless succession that has been showering her with adulation for 300 years, and she has become impatient with their attention pushing them to the margins of the stage.

Nothing interests her. When faced with Janek's suicide she dismisses it with an inconsequential “lots of people shoot themselves”. But she is suddenly beginning to experience a new feeling, that time is starting to run out on her and the various personas that she has assumed, all with the initials EM, are beginning to merge….

Her instinct for self preservation asserts itself, and the long court case Prus v Gregor provides an opportunity to retrieve the formula, but the balance of power is already slowly shifting as the facts of her long life begin to emerge. She regains her father's paper too late, she passes it on to Kristina who promptly consigns it to the fire and the story reaches a natural conclusion in the symbolic burning – only on this occasion it doesn't! Maybe he's even following current TV/film practice of leaving a gateway open for the sequel?

As Christopher Alden tells it, Kristina ignores the offer and, as Elina collapses , the paper merely falls to the floor as just a discarded piece of trash – has it simply become an irrelevance for her, or could she be leaving longevity as a curse for future generations? The motive for so significant a change of plot as this surely merited a programme note from the director?*

Whatever misgivings I had about the direction were overwhelmed by the musical excellence of the evening. Sir Charles Mackerras has been a tireless champion of Janacek's music over a 50 year period, and clearly still relishes every note of it. In fact he and a young Czech postgraduate Vana Prochazka had prepared an updated version of the orchestral score for this occasion, and it sounded fabulous.

Cheryl Barker took on the central role wholeheartedly, an isolated figure moving with elegance and detachment, and singing with the same focus and clarity. Her scenes with the elderly Hauk-Sendorf (Graham Clark) in which they slip seamlessly back and forth from the Spanish idiom and their past romance were cameos of perfection. Distinguished performances were also given by John Wegner (Prus) and Robert Brubaker (Gregor) and I was impressed by Elena Xanthoudakis, a young Australian born soprano, making her debut as Kristina. The minor roles of cleaner and maid were sung exceptionally strongly, and the complete cast deserves congratulation.

Serena Fenwick **


Pictured Cheryl Barker & Elena Xanthoudakis - credit Neil Libbert/ENO

* WNO's dramaturge – Simon Rees – provides articles by directors in the programmes he prepares, but ENO and ROH are generally shy of sharing their directors' thinking.

Our illustrations are of the lawyer's office in Charles Edwards' set for Christopher Alden (above) and of the first act set in the original 1964 production (photo credit: Reg Wilson, ENO Archives), with the seedy solicitor's office in the Sadlers Wells premiere, of which I have vivid memories from the '60s? Not shiny and modernist; old fashioned with law books and files on shelves, and a library ladder to reach them. A real working office. Only older opera goers will have been troubled by the comparison.

The disparity between this pseudo-normality and the radical music which counterpointed the bizarre story remains (rather) fresh in my memory, though I cannot claim to remember the score well enough to have noticed the changes that Mackerras/Prochazka have made for the new edition used at the Coliseum (and also for the live-CD recording being made).

By reading all the reviews assembled by The Opera Critic, together with a selection of ENO images, I have some idea of what Alden is on about, with musicomh.com the most lucid and helpful of them.


** SF adds: Quite amazing how much more dramatic tension there is in that 1960s set – it's obvious that the people are going to interact, not just be in the same place at the same time.