Review: The Makropulos Affair

Welsh National Opera turn tedium into enjoyment, as Simon Hale witnesses.

A tedious inheritance case concerning the estate of an intestate baron receives a surreal edge in the setting of a solicitor’s office at the start of Welsh National Opera’s thrilling production of The Makropulos Affair at Birmingham Hippodrome.

Documents rise on strings like pillars to signify the longevity of the litigation before a famous opera singer arrives with an interest in the case – and then upends it by declaring that she knows the whereabouts of a will.

That is quite a call given that the document has remained hidden and unknown for a century. But, as we are to discover, Emilia Marty is 337 years old. With generations of suitors falling for her beauty and various identities, the value in becoming immortal is the central question in this opera by Leos Janacek.

Director Olivia Fuchs sets the action in the 1920s at the time when Janacek wrote the libretto and it requires excellent acting, realistic sets that include the backstage of an opera house and a hotel suite, and revealing lighting, to help understand a complex narrative sung in Czech (with English surtitles).

Indeed, partly to fill in the time for a lengthy set change, Mark Le Brocq usefully addresses the audience both as himself and his character the solicitor Vitek to explain in English just who everyone is and how they relate to each other.

Ángeles Blancas Gulin gives a terrific performance as the femme fatale and eventual victim Emilia, conveying a gamut of emotions from coldness and disdain to humour and despair in her pursuit of the missing formula for a potion that will prolong her waning immortality.

Dressed in turn in a black flapper dress, a red diva gown and a long white nightdress for each of this intensely dramatic opera’s three acts, her supreme acting skills and strong soprano vocals never waver.

Nicky Spence (Albert Gregor) and David Stout (Baron Jaroslav Prus), descended from the original litigants, provide excellent support, as does Alan Oke as a demented Count Hauk-Sendorf and Alexander Sprague as Janek, whose suicide over his unrequited love for Emilia finally tips the scales in her own questioning whether any life is worth living without love.

Indeed, there are no weak links in this production, and that goes for the large excellent orchestra under the baton of Czech music director Tomáš Hanus who conducts the striking and powerful Janacek score with passion and verve.

Welsh National Opera will be at New Theatre Oxford performing The Makropulos Affair on Friday, December 2nd. WNO will also be at Birmingham Hippodrome performing Puccini’s La bohème on Friday November 11th (