The Makropulos Case, English National Opera, ENO at the London Coliseum, September 2010

Emilia Marty, Ellian MacGregor, Eugenia Montez, Elsa Müller, Ekatěrina Myškin, all E.M., just like her original name Elina Makropulos. This beautiful woman, born in Crete to Hieronymos Makropulos, is now 339 years old but has not aged since she was 39. A secret formula invented by her father, court physician to Emperor Rudolf II, keeps her alive for 300 years, and it is now time to renew the dose. But the formula is locked inside a desk drawer in the house of Jaroslav Prus, whose family has been engaged in a one hundred year legal battle against the family of Albert Gregor.

This Janaček opera, based on a contemporary comedy by Karel Čapek, has a serious philosophical side, and as Janaček says in a letter to his muse Kamila Stösslova, “We are happy because we know our life isn’t too long. So it’s necessary to make use of every moment, to use it properly. It’s all hurry in our life — and longing”. For Elina Makropulos, in her present incarnation as the beautiful opera singer Emilia Marty, the urgency is to recover the formula, but after finally acquiring it, she gives up. Emilia Marty is the key to this opera, and Amanda Roocroft gave us a stunning portrayal. Her voice was strong and sure, she looked terrific, and she played the part of an alluring woman to perfection. The whole cast gave her excellent support and I particularly liked the singing of Peter Hoare as Albert Gregor, whom she called Bertiku (she was after all his multi-great grandmother in a previous incarnation). I was also very taken with Laura Mitchell as the attractive young opera singer Kristina.

Amanda Roocroft as Emilia Marty, photos by Neil Libbert

The production by Christopher Alden — a co-production with the National Theatre, Prague — has been restaged to perfection in this revival that was dedicated to Charles Mackerras, the man who really put Janaček on the map in Britain. The set designs by Charles Edwards, in steel-and-glass deco, are based on a real scene in Prague and work extremely well. The same set serves for all three Acts: the law offices, the opera house, and finally the hotel room, a metaphor for the transience of mortal life. I’m not always a great fan of opera in English, but in this case it is very effective, and I loved the use of Greek when Emilia sings of her father being iatros kaisaros Rudolphou (physician to the Emperor Rudolf). At the beginning, when the legal case is the focus, people in the lawyer’s office write a plan of the relationships on a blackboard at the rear of the stage, and this is recaptured at the end when the focus is the secret medical formula, but unfortunately they then cover the blackboard with quasi-mathematical gobbledygook. Medical mumbo jumbo would be more appropriate, but that’s my only complaint — it’s a great production.

Musically it was brilliantly performed under the direction of Richard Armstrong. He’s an expert on Janaček’s music, and was once awarded the Czech government’s Janaček medal during his time as music director of the Welsh National Opera. You will not easily find a better production or performance of Makropulos, nor a better singer of the main role, and if you want to choose between this and Faust, which is on at the same time, I wouldn’t hesitate. This is the one to go for.

Performances continue on September 24, 26, October 1 and 5. Only five performances in total so don’t wait too long.

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