Reflections on life itself: Věc Makropulos at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Janáček – Věc Makropulos

Emilia Marty – Evelyn Herlitzius
Albert Gregor – Ladislav Elgr
Dr Kolenatý – Seth Carico
Vítek – Paul Kaufmann
Kristina – Jana Kurucová
Baron Jaroslav Prus – Derek Welton
Janek – Gideon Poppe
Count Hauk-Šendorf – Robert Gambill
Stage Technician – Andrew Harris
Cleaning Woman – Rebecca Raffell
Maid – Adriana Fefezka

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Donald Runnicles.
Stage director – David Hermann.

Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Germany.  Sunday, February, 28th, 2016.

I first came across David Hermann’s work in an outstanding Troyens that he directed in Karlsruhe back in 2012.  That show displayed a rare humanity and empathy with its characters that pointed to a very perceptive theatrical mind at work.  Shamefully I hadn’t seen any more of his shows until tonight and it was definitely well worth the wait.  Tonight was one of those transformative evenings at the opera, one of those where one left the theatre completely speechless unable to conceive of doing even the most basic human functions such as eating or drinking.  It was an amazing evening.

One of Hermann’s innovations is to draw attention to EM’s longevity.  In the opening act the stage is divided in two, between a 17th century set and one of Janáček’s time.  We see characters singing in the ‘present day’ but the events that led to the Gregor-Prus case are acted out on the other side of the stage.  Hermann instantly sets up the audience to reflect on the longevity of EM’s life and the fact that the events of yesterday feed into those of today and may in fact be repeating themselves.  EM also crosses across the stage, thereby perfectly encapsulating how her life crosses the boundaries of time and space.  We also see six doubles of EM in her earlier incarnations who appear at various points during the evening.  Whereas in a show such as Kasper Holten’s Royal Opera Onegin for example the use of doubles clutters the narrative, becomes distracting and draws attention from the singers; here they enhance the narrative and develop a very important point about the relationship between a long life and its physical manifestation, the body.  The message being that EM in her various incarnations has different meanings to different people.  For Hauk-Šendorf she’s the ‘chula negra’, for Krista she’s Emilia Marty the opera singer.

© Bernd Uhlig
Evelyn Herlitzius and ensemble © Bernd Uhlig

Indeed, I felt that this relationship between the body and the gathering of belongings during a long life is key to Hermann’s staging.  At one point we see EM having sex with Baron Prus on a chair.  EM treats sex as a completely mechanical act to have power over men.  Prus complains that the experience was poor because he felt that she gave him nothing.  Yet, the way that EM uses her body compares with the way that she treats the objects that she has acquired over her long life.  As the others discover the truth of her long existence they start to strip down the doubles and take possession of their belongings – the message is that the physical body is a means of gaining control but the souvenirs gathered from a long life cannot be replaced and these are truly what make EM who she is.  These souvenirs also take the form of documents, such as the will in the Gregor-Prus case and the formula of the elixir of life itself.

© Bernd Uhlig
Evelyn Herlitzius and Robert Gambill © Bernd Uhlig

It is telling perhaps that Janáček sets what is the only real ‘aria’ in the piece as the final scene for EM.  In Hermann’s vision we see Kolenatý, Prus, Gregor, Krista and Vítek sitting with the varying incarnations of EM as they approach death.  Standing above them Evelyn Herlitzius as EM delivers her final scene with a transcendent manifestation, both vocal and dramatic, of the knowledge that one’s body is no longer one’s own, that resignation that comes close to death and the knowledge of a very long life, fully lived.

Tonight Evelyn Herlitzius truly hit greatness in the role.  From her very first entry calling ‘Dr Kolenatý’ where she radiated star quality with her magnetic charisma, to her glorious vocalization of the final scene, she simply became EM right in front of us.  The voice has an autumnal warmth in the middle and, as I have mentioned before with her, the top opens up and takes on an incredible theatre-filling amplitude. She totally becomes EM through her vocalism and through her acting so that one no longer listens in terms of music but rather the total theatrical experience of seeing a character being created right there and then in front of us.  Vocally she was in fabulous form tonight; the voice was absolutely rock steady, vibrations even and in total command of the words.

© Bernd Uhlig
Ensemble © Bernd Uhlig

Indeed, the entire cast completely brought Janáček’s setting of the text to vivid life.  Ladislav Elgr coped manfully with Gregor’s highly challenging tessitura.  The role is cruelly written, exceptionally high and extremely declamatory but other than a little dryness in the tone towards the very end, he acquitted himself very respectfully.  Jana Kurucová brought a bright, youthful tone to Krista contrasting nicely with Herlitzius’ fuller tones.  Derek Welton sang Baron Prus with round, masculine tone and a vivid stage presence.  Seth Carico was an excellent Dr Kolenatý sung in a distinctive bass-baritone with a very healthy sound and a distinctive sheen to the voice, the registers completely integrated.  Gideon Poppe brought a light and appropriately boyish tone to Janek while Robert Gambill’s clown Hauk-Šendorf displayed excellent comic timing and a voice that still has warmth and richness.  In the remainder of the cast, Rebecca Raffell impressed with her generous almost androgynous contralto of notable depth of tone.

The Deutsche Oper’s orchestra took a little while to warm up.  The prelude was taken at a very swift tempo and the offstage brass wasn’t completely coordinated.  Intonation in the violins was also quite sour at first.  Despite this they warmed up nicely and apart from some sour brass tuning towards the end and flaccid attack in the strings, they gave a good account of themselves.  Donald Runnicles managed to accompany the singers sympathetically and propel the drama forward.  He also brought out some of the wit in Janáček’s scoring never allowing us to forget that this is a piece with its roots in comedy.

© Bernd Uhlig
Evelyn Hertlitzius © Bernd Uhlig

Tonight was a truly unforgettable evening in the theatre, one that left this spectator completely transfixed by the work of a truly great singing-actress, a fine ensemble cast and an extremely perceptive director.  This was an evening that left its audience in awe of some truly great singing and acting but also is a highly cogent and insightful meditation on the meaning of life and the relationship between longevity and the body.  It is without doubt an extremely important piece of theatre and tonight was given an exceptional performance.

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3 comments

  1. I absolutely agree with your comment about the doubles in Kasper Holten’s Onegin, I hated the idea. Glad to hear that the same idea worked so much better in this case. Thank you for a great review!

  2. Thanks for your comment. I know there were some who were perhaps disturbed by the doubles. I found them much more successful. The closing tableau of EM standing above all of the EMs that she has been throughout her life was extremely powerful and unbearably moving for me.

  3. I saw the opera on the opening night and agreed it was a great evening. Unbelievably about three people booed the directors. To us English readers, the red curtains and doubles did remind me of the old TV programme, “This is Your Life” and wondered whether there were foreign versions of that programme. I’m sure there was in the US years ago. It was my first visit to the Deutcshe Oper and I was impressed with both the house and performance!

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