Janacek: The Makropulos Case / Salonen, Denoke, Reuter, Hoare, Very, Vienna Philharmonic

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Premiered in 1926, Leoš Janácek’s absorbing masterpiece Vec Makropulos reflects all the dominant musical styles of the early 20th century, from Bohemian tunefulness to big Straussian phrases, Berg-like jaggedness and primeval rhythms. With the “breathtakingly grandiose” (Salzburger Nachrichten) Angela Denoke in the lead role, this emotionally powerful opera was given superior treatment at the hands of the Wiener Philharmoniker under Esa-Pekka Salonen. They and the entire cast joined forces to make this production one of the highlights of the 2011 Salzburg Festival. “Ms. Denoke is a compelling actress … Salonen ensures a brilliant reading of Janácek’s fascinating score.” – The New York Times

Leoš Janácek
(The Makropulos Affair)

Emilia Marty – Angela Denoke
Albert Gregor – Raymond Very
Vitek – Peter Hoare
Krista – Jurgita Adamonyte
Jaroslav Prus – Johan Reuter
Janek – Aleš Briscein
Dr. Kolenatý – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
A Scottish maid – Linda Ormiston
A conscientious objector – Peter Lobert
Hauk-Šendorf – Ryland Davies
Jin Ling – Sasha Rau
Mary Lang – Silvia Fenz
Anita Stadler – Anita Stadler

Vienna State Opera Chorus
(chorus master: Jörn H. Andresen)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Christoph Marthaler, stage director
Anne Viebrock, set and costume designer
Olaf Winter, lighting designer

Recorded live from the Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg Festival, 2011

Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean
Running time: 135 mins
No. of DVDs: 1

R E V I E W:

JANÁCEK The Makropoulos Case Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond; Angela Denoke ( Emilia Marty ); Raymond Very (Albert Gregor ); Johan Reuter ( Jaroslav Prus ); Peter Hoare ( Vitek ); Jochen Schmeckenbecher ( Dr. Kolenatý ); Jurgita Adamonyte ( Krista ); Vienna St Op Ch; Angelika Prokopp Summer Acad Members; Vienna PO C MAJOR 709508 (DVD: 118:00) Live: Salzburg 8/8–30/2010

This production is not strictly Eurotrash ( Regietheater ), but it has many elements thereof. Before the overture and between act II and act III come extended vignettes that have only vague, symbolic connections to the opera—a nursing home for aged women, a courtroom filled with judges and spectators. These vignettes may have been added just to pad this 95-minute opera into a full evening’s entertainment. We see the characters converse, but we do not hear them; their words appear in the subtitles throughout the first vignette—but not in the second. Several of the characters become spectators during scenes in the opera, wandering on and off stage. There is one basic set for all three acts; it is a courtroom, which must serve as an attorney’s office, backstage at the opera, and a hotel room. An additional set stands at each side: a small hospital-like anteroom, plus doors to private rooms, and an office waiting room, with a full-wall picture window into another waiting room. During the overture, a man and a young woman wait there; she turns out to be Krista, but we never see him again. The main characters often appear walking up an open corridor prior to their onstage entrance, which works only when Prus arrives and overhears Marty scheming with his son. Why do stage directors so often ignore an opera’s text? It just looks stupid when Krista, fending off Janek’s amorous attentions, cries “No, no, don’t kiss me,” and he is 20 feet away, behind a high counter. Or when Gregor enters, asking Marty “Why are your eyes closed?”—although he is standing behind her. Again and again, characters talk intimately at opposite sides of the stage.

The first act of this opera, and much of the second, depend on Marty being an irresistible femme fatale , and, in this age of video, we have come to expect visual as well as aural truth on stage. Angela Denoke, an attractive young woman, doesn’t project that aura—especially as I have just seen Karita Mattila play Marty at the Met, holding more than 2,000 men (of all persuasions) in her thrall. Denoke’s knee-length, Mondrian-based dress is chic rather than sexy. She is excellent portraying Marty’s other facets: the icy dominatrix who controls everybody in act II and the unfeeling, weary Elina Makropoulos of act III. Gregor, supposedly a reckless if distraught young fellow, is also visually miscast: Marty asks him how old he is, and a balding, corporate gentleman with a grey fringe and a week’s white stubble answers “34.” This video is an amalgam of two performances given three weeks apart; Gregor appears in an act II duet alternately with and without the stubble. Prus, on the other hand, is perfect: elegant, sophisticated, cunning, and blasé—until his disappointment and tragedy in act III. Ryland Davies is a fine Hauk-?endorf—it’s a role that can’t miss—although he looks a bit too dignified to be truly crazy. As the cleaning woman (doubling chambermaid), Linda Ormiston is wonderful, reeking with character. Stage director Christoph Marthaler obviously doesn’t like lawyers; he gives both Vitek and Dr. Kolenaty exaggerated personal tics that make them look ridiculous.

Fortunately, everybody can sing, all the way down to the stagehand, a giant of a man (bass Peter Lobert) who doubles as a nursing-home attendant. Denoke is among the better Martys on record, although I still prize Mackerras’s Elisabeth Soderström. Salonen’s Vienna Philharmonic is of course magnificent, although not given the aural definition it deserves, which is why it sounds more incisive under Mackerras in Decca’s superb studio recording. The chorus doesn’t have much to do in this opera, and—although the booklet is mum on the subject—I gather that the additional group in the headnote plays the people in the interludes.

But this is an endlessly fascinating opera, and it survives—perhaps even prospers from—this semi-weird production. The final act is, as always, pure dynamite; Elina’s death scene is unscathed by a window-washer at work behind her or by a live rat running across the stage in front of her. (How did they do that?) The opera is sung in Czech; overly simplified English subtitles, which miss important details of the lawsuit in act I and of Elina Makropoulos’s life history in act III, also appear in German, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Korean. This DVD may be heard in PCM stereo, which works best for headphones, or in DTS 5.1; the video (“filmed in High Definition and mastered from an HD source”) is in 16:9 format; both are fine, although the sound in Salzburg’s Grosse Festspielhaus is a bit too reverberant. The extras consist of half a dozen trailers for other Unitel Classics DVDs. There is also a Blu-ray version, which I have not seen.

Anna Silja was a noted Emilia Marty, but when she finally recorded the role (a 1995 Glyndebourne DVD), she was too old for the part, visually and vocally. There was a surprisingly fine Makropoulos Case by the Canadian Opera Company on a 1989 VHS tape. A natural, realistic production, it featured superb direction and acting, and was quite well sung. Stephanie Sundine, getting better from act to act, was a spellbinding Marty; David Graham played Gregor as an impetuous, overgrown boy; and Gary Rideout was magnificent as a crazy-as-a-loon Hauk-?endorf, hysterically funny yet deeply moving. Even the orchestra, led by Berislav Kolobucar, was first-rate. That tape remains my favorite video Makropoulos , but this one is recommended as the best on DVD.

FANFARE: James H. North

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 709508

  • UPC: 814337010959

  • Label: C Major

  • Composer: Leoš Janáček

  • Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna State Opera Chorus

  • Performer: Ales Briscein, Angela Denoke, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Johan Reuter, Jurgita Adamonyte, Linda Ormiston, Peter Hoare, Raymond Very, Ryland Davies