It is difficult for the audience to get to grips with the plot of this Janacek opera, which has a number of disparate threads that eventually weave together in a dramatic finale.
Normally I dislike surtitles for opera performances, but in this production I was often grateful for the English words appearing high above the stage. As the performance was in English, surtitles should not be necessary, but in this case it was helpful as there were passages when robust orchestral playing obscured the singers.
This was particularly so in the opening scenes, where a distraught Baron Prus is awaiting the verdict in a complicated legal case that has been dragging on expensively for 100 years. The wordy interchanges between lawyer and client sometimes seemed spoken rather than sung. Thing livened up when Kristina enters, agog about the arrival of a glamorous prima donna who had all the men at her feet.
This was the mysterious Emilia Marty and the action centred on her for the rest of the opera. She appeared to have knowledge of the legal dispute and even precisely where an old will and another document could be found in the baron’s house.
Ylva Kihlberg (Marty) had an understated start as the heroine but delivered a fuller, more emotive voice as the plot developed. She entices men with her sexuality to obtain the document she wants, despite repeatedly claiming that she is more than 300 years old.
Over the years she has had many names – all with the initials EM – and one lover turns up from the time she was a Gipsy woman in Andalusia. She reveals that she is really Elina Makropolous, daughter of the personal physician to Emperor Rudolph II. The emperor wanted eternal life and charged his physician with the task of finding a potion to ensure this. Makropolous creates a potion to extend life for 300 years.
He is forced to try it on his 16-year-old daughter, born in 1585. She falls into a deep coma, her father is imprisoned, but when she wakens up, she has possession of the potion document and a life-span extended by 300 years. In the finale, after revealing that she was the mistress of Baron Prus and mother of Gregor – the other litigant in long-running legal case – she collapses and is carried to her bed, obviously dying.
Surrounded on her deathbed by former lovers and lawyers, she offers the document to everyone in turn. All except Kristina refuse to take it. Kristina makes to burn it; Marty tries to grab it back but collapses and dies.
Janacek’s operatic reworking of Karel Capek’s play has an excellent score, with unusual emphasis on timpani and brass. The English dialogue misses the precise cohesion with the music of the original Czech.
Event: August 11&13