21 FEBRUARY 1964, Page 23

The Makropulos Case


IMMEDIATE impressions of The Makropulos Case—pro- duced for the first time in this country at Sadler's Wells last week—are inevitably confus- ing; there is so much to take in in the short time that Janacek's extraordinary con- ciseness and directness allow to the work. There is the unique and fascinating style of his music, with its Mus- sorgskian speech-melody and elaborate motivic interrelations. There is the strange sound —again combining the primwval and the highly sophisticated—of his orchestra in this work : less bleak and uncompromisingly bony than in his next and final opera; The House of the Dead, but still pretty odd on first acquaintance. And there is the sheer force and intensity of his lyricism, despite the absence of obvious 'lyrical expansion' (until the heroine's farewell to life at the end of the opera); the small-talk of stage hands, the de- tails of a lawsuit—all is turned to music. The difficulty, at a first hearing of the work, is to reconcile one's reaction to the music with the drama's claims on one's attention. Maybe they are one; but to begin with they are bound, I think, to act separately. The score exerts the almost hypnotic spell of Janacek's late works. At the same time one's imagination is engaged by the central idea of Karel Capek's play, and strains to follow every twist and surprise development of the plot. A part of us wants to forget the music and simply listen to the words. Capek imagined a woman, Elina Makropulos, the daughter of a sixteenth-century court physi- cian, whb was given as a girl an elixir discovered by her father, and has lived for over 300 years, eternally young, in a series of incarnations, often as a great opera singer. She has become ice-cold, weighed down by a vast weariness but still attract- ing men magnetically by her beauty and formid- able personality, and divided between a tragic recognition that she has outlived her response to life and a fear of death which makes her search feverishly for the formula that will ensure an- other span of existence. The formula she gave, about a hundred years before the action takes place, to the great love of her life, Pepi Prus, who took the elixir and died. The document is among the papers of the descendants of the man to whom the estate passed when Pepi died apparently childless. But Pepi had a son by Elina Makropulos (or Elian Macgregor as she then was), and a lawsuit began which is still raging when the opera opens. The mainspring of the plot is the attempt of Elina Makropulos (now Emilia Marty, a Viennese prima donna) to re- cover the document from the house of the present Baron Prus, and her consequent involvement in the lawsuit. It is a superb idea, and for all its self-sufficiency as a spoken drama, a natural subject for Janacek, the composer whose imagination combines fan- tasy with earthy reality, and a nineteenth-century sense of traditional values with a twentieth- century insight into their disintegration, and whose compassionate awareness of the inner tor- ments of the human mind only-sharpens his in- tense celebration of life. But before involving oneself with the music one wants to absorb the dramatic idea and become thoroughly familiar with the words. If only Mr. Norman Tucker, who ha's had the courage to put on this exciting piece, had also had the sense to publish his translation and put it on sale. At Sadler's Wells, for the opera-goer whose first experience of the work it is (for most of us, in fact), music and drama frequently work against each other at the most "rudimentary level, that of the inaudibility of sub- stantial parts of the text.

What, for instance, are Emilia Marty and the ex-diplomat (the splendidly named Hauk-Sen- dorf) saying to each other in that extraordinary scene backstage at the opera in Act 2 when, bored to distraction with the present and the demands of her various current admirers, she suddenly embraces the old trout, who had been her lover fifty years earlier? We long to know; the char- acteristically scanty programme synopsis is no help. Perhaps the orchestra is sometimes too loud, and certainly too few of the cast emulate the clarity of Raimund Herincx, whose coldly magis- terial Baron Prus is one of the best things in the performance. But if we could read the libretto beforehand, our understanding and enjoyment of the opera would be so greatly enhanced.

Despite this, and despite John Blatchley's ill- judged handling of the denouement (when, after a wildly overplayed drinking scene, the dying Elina reappears as a withered crone, contradict- ing music, stage directions and artistic sense) the production is a fine achievement. Marie Collier's performance as Marty /Makropulos is a tour de force of capricious grandeur. She has not yet eliminated the weaknesses of line, phrasing and elocution which flaw her considerable talent; nonetheless she carries off this challenging role in imperious style. The supporting roles are not more than competently played, except by Herincx, but they will do. The whole thing has conviction. Motley's settings are unusually striking and suc- cessful. Charles Mackerras conducts with fire and devotion.