Facing the Beyond: Věc Makropulos at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Janáček – Věc Makropulos

Emilia Marty – Evelyn Herlitzius
Albert Gregor – Aleš Briscein
Dr Kolenatý – Seth Carico
Vítek – Paul Kaufmann
Kristina – Jana Kurucová
Baron Jaroslav Prus – Philipp Jekal
Janek – Gideon Poppe
Count Hauk-Šendorf – Clemens Bieber
Stage Technician – Andrew Harris
Cleaning Woman – Maiju Vaahtoluoto
Maid – Flurina Stucki

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Marko Letonja.
Stage director – David Hermann.

Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Germany.  Thursday, November 22nd, 2018.

There’s always a sense of trepidation, mixed with excitement, when revisiting a staging that left a profound impression on a previous viewing.  When I saw David Hermann’s Věc Makropulos at the Deutsche Oper back in 2016, it felt like a transformative evening in the theatre.  Not least due to the presence of the great Evelyn Herlitzius in the central role of EM.  Now reunited with many of the original cast, some new voices and a new conductor, the chance to see and reappraise this Věc Makropulos anew was one that was impossible to resist.

Far too often, it can feel that stage directors use actors as doubles on stage, in a way that distracts from the principals who are actually singing.  And yet here, Hermann uses doubles most intelligently to illustrate the back story of the Gregor-Prus case, but also to truly bring home EM’s longevity and enigmatic nature.  This idea that EM is, and can be, precisely what others project on her – Elian MacGregor, Emilia Marty, the ‘chula negra’ Eugenia Montez – gives Hermann’s vision of her added power.  Especially as we see these previous versions on stage reacting with and to the cast, as well as with EM herself.  Hermann’s vision convinces not just through the intricate stage direction, but also through clearly presenting how the events of the past feed into the present in such a logical and clear way.  Věc Makropulos is a wordy piece with a complicated backstory, and it’s testament to Hermann and the cast that the clarity of the storytelling comes across so immediately.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Another aspect Hermann explores convincingly is the ever-shifting power dynamics, particularly between EM and Jaroslav Prus – her strong, mysterious façade gradually dissolving as the reality of her situation becomes apparent.  Indeed, even the walls of the set become fuzzy.  Of course, central to this vision is Herlitzius herself who gives us a performance of exceptional vividness.  It struck me again how much Herlitzius and Hermann bring out how EM’s maintenance of her mysterious façade is her way to avoid acknowledging and accepting her own imminent mortality, as the effect of the potion comes to an end.  When she does accept death, in a devastatingly moving final scene, the effect is overwhelming.  Herlitzius is a true singing-actor, an artist with whom one never quite knows where the character starts and the person portraying her ends.  She truly lives this role.  She brings just that star quality needed to make her opening entrance with ‘Dr Kolenatý’ count, the voice instantly recognizable.  Herlitzius maps EM’s journey so convincingly.  Admittedly, it took her a little while to fully warm up – the voice sounded somewhat hollow at first.  Once she did, the voice took on great amplitude, overtaking this listener in a glow of golden sound.  Herlitzius brought out the sarcasm, the humour, but also the regret.  The regret of a long life, where feelings become muted with time.  At the same time, the warmth of the tone brought out the humanity in Janáček’s writing – and the tears most certainly flowed.  Tonight, once again, Herlitzius gave us a truly great performance.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

She was joined by an exceptionally fine cast.  Albert Gregor is a very good role for Aleš Briscein’s silvery tenor.  The tessitura held no terrors and he dispatched the high-lying writing with ease.  Seth Carico brought his exceptionally firm and handsome baritone to the role of Dr Kolenatý.  His is a magnetic stage presence and the role was always sung off the text in an instrument of striking resonance.  Jana Kurucová’s Krista was sung in a sunny mezzo with full, rounded tone and again, was unfazed by the tessitura.  Philipp Jekal, only 26 years old, displayed a baritone of serious promise as Jaroslav Prus.  The sound is already big and firm and also shows signs of heroic metal at the core.  Clearly a very promising artist.  Paul Kaufmann was a nicely insinuating Vítek, and I was struck by Andrew Harris’ large and glamourous bass as the Stage Technician and Maiju Vaahtoluoto’s fruity mezzo as the Cleaning Woman.

The house band had a good night on the whole for Marko Letonja.  Yes, there were a few brass slips, some passing scrappiness in the strings and some of the entries were not quite unanimous, but on the whole, they played decently.  There was a soft-grained warmth to the sound that reinforced Herlitzius’ autumnal warmth in the final scene, and the closing pages blazed convincingly.  Letonja’s conducting was unobtrusive.  He gave the band a chance to really exploit the wealth of colour, both instrumental and rhythmic, in the score, but never allowed the singers to be overwhelmed by the volume from the pit.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

One so often ends reviews with an encouragement for readers to go see a show (or indeed not as the case may be).  On this occasion, I would normally encourage readers to run to Berlin to see it.  Sadly, tonight was the dernière of the run and in a tweet, the house suggested it would be the last time for Hermann’s staging to be revived.  I sincerely hope it isn’t because it’s a superb piece of music-theatre, one that takes the piece seriously and brings it to vivid and enthralling life.  It was an exceptionally well-cast revival – extremely well sung by all.  But of course, it was capped by Herlitzius’ commanding, overwhelming and deeply moving EM.  There was something so heart-rending about EM’s imprecation to Krista to follow her dream, to ‘sing or be silent’.  A sense of carpe diem that, in these exceptionally sombre days, where hope seems so distant, I found incredibly life-enhancing.  A truly great evening in the theatre.

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