Janacek’s fantastic opera Vec Makropulos is a favorite with intense singing actresses and has appeared more and more in the seasons of opera houses around the world – but it is not yet a regular item. For instance, this is the first time I have ever seen this opera in the theater. As almost everyone, I first met this very unique work in Charles Mackerras’s recording with a mesmerizing Elisabeth Söderström (probably my favorite performance with the Swedish soprano in this series).
It is a very difficult work – it has a very Protean musical quality that follows the rhythm of dialogues in kaleidoscopic orchestral effects, while the balance between cynical and philosophical comedy is hard to find. Cristoph Marthaler’s new staging does not try to interfere with the already tangled plot, but rather frames it into a theatrical concept of recurrent and repetitive actions carried out by actors. Every act is preceded by some sort of pantomime with the extras that finally outstay their welcome in a performance without intermission. Anna Viebrock’s single sets depict a courtroom with adjoining waiting-room, corridors. Characters of an unrelated (or maybe not) trial pop out until the room is packed with actors in the last act. Because the libretto is very clear, one could understand that none of those scenes actually take place in a courtroom, even if the courtroom did not seem to bring any particular atmosphere to any scene, especially the last one.
In comparison to Mackerras, Esa-Pekka Salonen adopted an almost Karajanesque large and rich orchestral sound in which hard-edges sometimes were a bit rounded out, but – with the help of deluxe playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, this score has probably never sounded so expressive and immediately approachable. Last time I saw Angela Denoka, it was an opera by Janacek too. She was not then in good voice and I feared that she had undergone some vocal decline, but this evening she showed herself in very good shape. Those used to Söderström’s recording might find her a bit generalized, but Denoke’s pure-toned yet large soprano had a slightly eerie effect that fits the role. She sounds like no-one else in the cast, and her almost Mozartian take on Janacek makes sense to the role of an opera singer “with perfect technique” and ice-cold allure. Raymond Very (Gregor), Peter Hoare (Vitek) and Ales Briscein (Janek) dealt commendably with Janacek’s difficult writing for the tenor voice. Both Johan Reuter (Prus) and Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Kolenaty) offered rich and surprisingly smooth-toned accounts of these key bass roles. Finally, I don’t have the faintest idea of how idiomatic or verbally specific these singers sound in Czech in an almost non-Czech cast (Briscein alone is a fellow countryman of the composer).