The Makropulos Affair, WNO, Wales Millennium Centre 

September 26, 2022 by

We were treated to a rather intriguing opener to the new WNO season as they continue, under the propelling influence of Music Director Tomáš Hanus, in their quest to bring to the stage the catalogue of works by Czech composer Leoš Janáček – an author perhaps less known in the UK, but certainly worth rediscovering. This time we delve into the murky atmospheres of The Makropulos Affair, a work that would not entirely be out of place as an old black-and-white film, a thriller novel, or, for that matter, a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. What may at first come across as a classic operatic tale of intrigue, seduction, and mischief takes on a completely different, and altogether more existential, colouring as the twist of the tale is revealed, spinning it into a reflection on immortality, aging, and the meaning of life itself.

One thing that has emerged in this exploration of the works of Janáček is the incredible versatility of voice of this composer. I cannot think of many others that can comfortably inhabit such a broad range of different settings, themes, and mood, from the fairytale to the kitchen-sink drama, and now a tense, almost noir story with a tinge of the supernatural. While musically all of his works remain recognisable as undoubtedly the product of the same mind – with the same clever use of short phrases, the same deliberate descent into a quasi-spoken recitative in scenes of great tension, the same attention to the depiction of human nature both at its best and, more often, at its worst – tonally this breadth of range translates into opportunities for staging works that can be visually extremely distant from each other. Here the choice was made to integrate the stage setting with video visuals, which contributed to evoke that old thriller movie atmosphere that is such a good fit for this complex and subtly disquieting story. Colour, too, is used as a code in this staging, with each of the three acts visually dominated by a different tint, a somber beige first, then a red that speaks of danger and attraction, and at last a white that can be associated with both death and redemption.




Alan Oke and Ángeles Blancas Gulin


At the centre of this colour scheme, and at the centre of the narrative itself, stands a charismatic protagonist who carries in a sense the whole text on her shoulders. The character of Emilia Marty is both herself the enigma and the main propeller of the plot, and it is safe to say that The Makropulos Affair is almost entirely her story, with all other characters inextricably caught in her orbit. This centrality is reflected in the play of colours, with the character wearing different wigs and clothes with each act to set the tone with her presence even before her actions; but it cannot be denied that the story hinges on her charisma and the aura of mystery that surrounds her, and therefore the success of its staging equally hinges on this one performance. Here such a burden is successfully carried by soprano Ángeles Blancas Gulin, who infuses her character with the many different nuances its effective performance requires. Emilia Marty is not only a woman who has lived many lives: it is a multifaceted, complex, even abrasive character, a seductress and a victim, charismatic and deeply lonely, ironic and desperate, able to elicit passion, admiration, and even disgust in those who interact with her. Gulin must be praised for the attention she puts in conveying all of this complexity, giving the whole production a sturdy backbone and the story an important degree of depth.

All other characters may be subordinate to such a dominant protagonist, but that does not mean that other performances were not notable, too. Among all it is worth mentioning Mark LeBrocq who brings a much-needed light touch as the solicitor Vitek; David Stout with a ponderous, layered interpretation of Baron Jaroslav Prus; Nicky Spence, with an insightful take of the somewhat hapless Albert Gregor; and Alan Oke as Count Hauk- Šendorf – clearly a crowd favourite with his over-the-top take on an equally over-the-top character.

There is a deep reflection seated at the core of The Makropulos Affair on what truly makes life worth living, and whether immortality is a boon or a curse. There is also, perhaps, something in it about how the arts are the true path to immortality in this world: Emilia Marty is, after all, a celebrated opera singer. The work does not necessarily provide answers to all its questions, nor does this WNO production attempt to find any where they are not, but anyone leaving the theatre after watching it will be no doubt left with some good food for thought.


Wales Millennium Centre until September 28 then touring


Images Richard Hubert Smith

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