Teatro La Fenice


Leoš Janáček - Věc Makropulos

La Fenice di Venezia, 2013 | Gabriele Ferro, Robert Carsen, Ángeles Blancas Gulín, Ladislav Elgr, Andreas Jäggi, Enric Martínez-Castignani, Martin Bárta, Enrico Casari, Guy De Mey, Leonardo Cortellazzi, Judita Nagyová, Leona Pelešková | Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 15 March 2013

Although it would be surpassed by the musical progression in From the House of the Dead, Leoš Janáček at the time considered Věc Makropulos (The Makropolus Case, 1926) as his greatest work to date. In many ways, Věc Makropulos is the one where many of the themes in Janáček’s previous works come together. The contemplation on the passing of time, the renewal of life, death as a necessary and intrinsic part of existence are perhaps at their most beautiful in The Cunning Little Vixen, while other aspects of living in difficult circumstances, making choices and dealing with adversity in a wider social context can be found in Jenůfa and in Katya Kabanova. There is something beautifully expressive in the freshness of those earlier works, but the sophisticated arrangements of Věc Makropulos are much more ambitious without losing any of the concision of expression that is so characteristic of the composer.

That concision reduces some of the social context found in the original 1922 play of the same name by the celebrated Czech science-fiction author Karol Capek (the man credited with inventing the term “robot”), but Janáček’s focus - as indicated by letters he wrote at the time - was very much on the question of the question of eternal youth as a personal burden on its main character Emilia Marty or Elina Makropulos as she was originally known. Very little of socialist leanings of Vitek remain in the opera, the lawyer’s clerk in the original work believing it would earn man the right to elevate himself and the condition of humanity, while his employer Kolenatý can only see the destruction of social institutions that are based on life being short. Who for example would want to be married to the same person for 300 years? Janáček’s own libretto however reworks the story slightly to consider the question of life only having meaning when it has an end.

Canadian director Robert Carsen’s designs for the La Fenice production of Věc Makropulos in Venice then is fairly straightforward and traditional in its 1920s period setting, but he does find something interesting to play with in the theatrical nature of Emilia Marty being an opera singer. A parallel on the question of identity is drawn immediately in the repetitions of the theme in the Overture (the only overture written for any Janáček opera), where a series of rapid backstage costume changes reflect the fact of Emilia Marty has played many opera roles and at the same time taken on many identities in her 327 years of existence. Following in such quick succession, you also get the sense of her weariness of living such a life for such a long time.

Opera also plays a major part in the backstage setting of Act II, Carson choosing Puccini’s near contemporary Turandot as the opera backdrop, a choice that works well with the unfeeling ice-queen personality that Emilia has developed over the years, showing little concern for the lives or deaths of other lesser beings. Elsewhere however, Carsen’s staging is fairly traditional and the sets by Radu Boruzescu are not as stylised or high-concept as you would more often find with Carsen’s productions. It many not be as visually impressive either, but judging by how strong his presentation of the characters is and the overall success of the production, it is however clearly a thoughtful and appropriate reading of the work.

What is rather more crucial in determining the success of a production of Věc Makropulos - or indeed any Janáček opera - is in how it captures the rhythm of the music, the flow of the singing and the whole essence of life that lies within it. Conducted by Gabriele Ferro, that was achieved marvellously by the orchestra of La Fenice, the score performed with verve and drive, vividly describing the wonderful details in the use of instruments that make the work so unique and expressive. No less important to the rhythmic flow are the inflections of the Czech voice and the singing was strong across all the main roles here. Spanish soprano Ángeles Blancas Gulín sang Emilia Marty wonderfully with the necessary command, particularly for the way that the diva role was played in this production, her death on the stage, alone under the spotlight, making the work all the more poignant.

MariaStuardaGaetano Donizetti – Maria Stuarda

Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 2010 | Fabrizio Maria Carminati, Denis Krief, Fiorenza Cedolins, Sonia Ganassi, José Bros, Mirco Palazzi | Unitel Classica - C-Major

One might expect a certain amount of historical detail and political intrigue in an opera about the English crown during the turbulent Tudor era but, based on a play by Friedrich Schiller, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, like many of his bel canto historical works, keeps the plot and the psychology relatively simple, relating to it more on a romantic than a political level. Here, the political element is practically non-existent, the rivalry that lies between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth being for the affections of the Earl of Leicester, and the dominant tone – powerfully stated – is one of the deepest jealousy.

“Is she pretty?”, Elisabeth can’t help herself asking Leicester who has just delivered a message from Mary and has shown indifference to the news that she is considering a marriage proposal from France, and you can imagine her reaction when Leicester has the indelicacy of detailing Mary’s virtues in loving tones while, strangely in this production, his hands are wandering all over her. The latter point highlights the problem that Denis Krief has with staging the opera. There is really no action, the characters just stand around and sing, and with no great depth to the love-triangle rivalry, the stage director is left to just emphasise, and in some cases inappropriately overstate, those surface emotions that are brought out in the libretto.

And to a large extent, the opera works on that surface level, but it’s mostly through its expression in Donizetti’s sizzling score and the delivery of those bitter cat-fighting moments in the extraordinary challenging arias, than through anything that the staging comes up with. There may not be much to get to grips with in the plot, the acting is stiff and weak (mainly on account of the characters having nothing to do), but if you want to see a mezzo and a soprano tear strips off each other vocally, and coming close to physical violence (there are looks that could kill here), then Sonia Ganassi as Elizabeth and Fiorenza Cedolins as Mary, deliver that in the most powerful manner. Inevitably, the soprano is going to win in the singing stakes, Cedolins having plenty of extravagant arias with all the coloratura, and she delivers them with remarkable control and force, but Ganassi’s Elizabeth has the more juicy lines in the libretto and devastating put-downs. Coming between these two powerful women, the thin tenor voice of José Bros can’t help but seem a bit lost, hitting the notes well enough, but with a tone that isn’t the most pleasant to the ear.

If a stage director is wise then, he will also just keep out of the way and let the two women get on with it, and to a large extent that’s what Krief does. There is no period setting, the costumes are generic traditional rather than modern, there are practically no props whatsoever, the stage converted into a tilted forward labyrinth (reminiscent of the Berlin Holocaust memorial or, less kindly, like a Pac-Man arena when it is populated by moving characters) that does nevertheless give emphasis to the romantic intrigue through its lighting and shadows. It’s not particularly imaginative or dynamic, but it looks fine and works through its very simplicity. There’s not much drama then, no real staging to speak of, not much in the way of acting or movement – it might as well be a concert performance – but the opera works through its musical vibrancy and some terrific arias alone.

On Blu-ray, the stage setting and the lighting come across exceptionally well, and the audio tracks are just as impressive, voices ringing clear, the orchestration beautifully defined, the strings in particular being dominant, with deep rounded bass in the low-frequency range. The audience however sounds strangely muted in the surround mix. There is a little bit of ambient noise or low microphone feedback on a few moments, but nothing that affects the overall impact. There are no extra features on the disc, just some brief notes on the opera and its staging, with a similarly short synopsis.