The Disintegration of EM: Věc Makropulos at Opera Vlaanderen

Janáček – Věc Makropulos

Emilia Marty – Rachel Harnisch
Albert Gregor – Michael Laurenz
Dr Kolenatý – Károly Szemerédy
Vítek – Sam Furness
Kristina – Raehann Bryce-Davis
Baron Jaroslav Prus – Michael Kraus
Janek – Adam Smith
Count Hauk-Šendorf – Guy de Mey
Stage Technician – Thierry Vallier
Cleaning Woman – Bea Desmet
Maid – Birgit Langenhuysen

Koor Opera Vlaanderen, Symfonisch Orkest Opera Vlaanderen / Tomáš Netopil.
Stage director – Kornél Mundruczó.

Opera Vlaanderen, Antwerp, Belgium.  Sunday, September 18th, 2016.

Much like those fabled buses of London, England that have a tendency to come in threes, today’s Věc Makropulos was my third of this year.  It also marked my first visit to Opera Vlaanderen’s Antwerp home.  I have had the pleasure of visiting their Ghent theatre on a number of occasions and the Antwerp house is just as beautifully ornate. What always strikes me about what they achieve in Flanders is the truly outstanding depth of casting that they succeed in attracting.  The quality of the orchestral playing is the equal (if not even better) of some larger houses and the production values are also extremely high.

Rachel Harnisch.  Photo: © Annemie Augustijns
Rachel Harnisch. Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Today also marked my first encounter with the work of Kornél Mundruczó.  He has already established a strong reputation as a fine film and theatre director and actor, and this Makropulos is his second opera production.  It’s clear that he is an equally fine opera director.  Personenregie was extremely detailed, creating real characters that genuinely engaged and reacted to each other.  The stagecraft was also extremely assured with some striking use of shadow and light to illustrate the actions on stage.  The starting premise was that EM was already physically disintegrating, almost from the start.  Whereas in the first act we are introduced to her as a magnetic, long-legged biker with a short wig, we also see her falling to the floor as if disorientated.  As the evening develops, EM removes her wig to reveal her bald head and in a state of relative undress we see her tattoos, the products of a long life.  She connects herself to a drip and it appears her fridge contains more than just food to sustain her life.  Bandages protect her knees as her falls become more frequent.  Despite her clearly disintegrating body she still has enormous influence over the others, even going so far as to get them to copy her physical movements.

Another aspect of the show, related to EM first appearing as a biker, is a movie shown at the opening of Acts 1 and 2, of a driver’s eye view of a road trip.  This raises an interesting metaphor of EM as being on an eternal, ongoing journey but it doesn’t really feel explored in any further depth.  Otherwise it is an extremely theatrically impressive piece of work – the seamless way in which the furniture of EM’s apartment is elevated into the air as she leaves life is extremely impressive.

Rachel Harnisch & Michael Kraus. Photo: © Annemie Augustijns
Rachel Harnisch & Michael Kraus. Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

All but one member of the cast were making role debuts in this production and the level of musical preparedness was a testament to the extremely high standards that the house maintains.  Rachel Harnisch was a commanding EM.  The voice is round with a slight duskiness and lunar beauty – uncannily similar to a celebrated Nordic exponent of the role – and she rode the orchestral sound with ease.  Harnisch truly caressed the words and had that instant charisma the role demands.  She was also physically tireless throughout.  If there was one thing that felt lacking it was the relatively limited tonal palette of her singing – the sound itself was undeniably beautiful but I did find she had a limited range of tone colours.  She was, however, completely inside the role and for a debut this was an extremely impressive assumption of this demanding role.

Michael Kraus & Rachel Harnisch. Photo: © Annemie Augustijns
Michael Kraus & Rachel Harnisch. Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

I was impressed by Michael Laurenz’ Albert Gregor who sang with indefatigable strength and a seemingly effortless top in that cruelly high-lying role.  The voice has a good size and a nice sheen to the sound.  Certainly a singer I would like to hear again. The same goes for Károly Szemerédy’s Dr Kolenatý – a big sound, full and round with the registers all absolutely integrated.  Michael Kraus was a fine Jaroslav Prus, his baritone is slightly grainy now, but he has real authority and felt completely at home in the language and the idiom.  Guy de Mey made an imposing cameo as the Hauk-Šendorf, the voice in good shape and stage presence to spare.  Raehann Bryce-Davis made a positive impression as Krista, with crystalline tone and easy command of the tessitura.  The one slight disappointment was Sam Furness’ Vítek, a singer who has given me pleasure in the past, but who today sounded perhaps indisposed, the voice grainy and slightly effortful and he seemed to be fighting with the words.  It may well be that this was his way of portraying the old legal clerk but to my ears he sounded out of sorts.

Michael Laurenz & Rachel Harnisch.  Photo: © Annemie Augustijns
Michael Laurenz & Rachel Harnisch. Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

As always in Flanders the playing of the excellent house band really was at the highest level. The intonation of the strings was spot on throughout the entire show, the brass always accurate and the winds full of personality.  Coordination between the pit band and the off-stage brass was tight.  Tomáš Netopil’s conducting seemed much more expansive than we are used to and he seemed to be almost smoothing over the angularity of Janáček’s writing to create something more plush and opulent than we usually hear.  The way he voiced the chords in the orchestra brought out the originality of Janáček’s writing and he certainly demonstrated an implicit structural understanding of the orchestral line.  It felt to me that he was aiming to create a cushion of sound to support the voices.  Despite the expansiveness of the tempi, what Netopil did certainly convinced and, even without an interval, it did feel exactly right.

Ensemble. Photo: © Annemie Augustijns
Ensemble. Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Those final pages really did work their magic in the way that they always do as EM left this world having lived a very long and eventful life.  Where Mundruczó succeeds is in creating real flesh and blood characters and in illustrating the disintegration and private life of a figure who still had tremendous influence over others.  It’s a most assured and impressive piece of stagecraft, even if one aspect perhaps felt somewhat underdeveloped.  The musical side really was excellent, crowned by a most imposing assumption of the title role and orchestral playing of superb quality.

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