Contemplating the Beyond: Věc Makropulos at the Opernhaus Zürich

Janáček – Věc Makropulos

Emilia Marty – Evelyn Herlitzius
Albert Gregor – Sam Furness
Dr Kolenatý – Tómas Tómasson
Vítek – Kevin Conners
Krista – Deniz Uzun
Baron Jaroslav Prus – Scott Hendricks
Janek – Spencer Lang
Count Hauk-Šendorf – Guy de Mey
Stage Technician – Ruben Drole
Cleaning Woman – Irène Friedli
Maid – Katia Ledoux

Zusatzchor des Opernhauses Zürich, Philharmonia Zürich / Jakub Hrůša.
Stage director – Dmitri Tcherniakov.

Opernhaus Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland.  Sunday, October 13th, 2019.

What happens to a person when she discovers her days are numbered?  Some might not give a damn anymore and take the opportunity to tell others how they really feel.  Others might do one of those things they’d always longed to do but never had the chance.  Or in the case of EM, in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s new staging of Věc Makropulos at the Opernhaus Zürich, you might write your pre-departure ‘to do’ list and hire a group of actors to act out Karel Čapek’s play on which the opera is based.  As the curtain rose, a movie accompanied the prologue, revealing a text in Czech outlining a terminal cancer diagnosis.  Initially, we don’t know for whom, but EM’s chain smoking suggests that it might be for her.

Tcherniakov sets the action in a drawing room, one where Evelyn Herlitzius’s EM holds court.  As the characters come to life before us, we witness what is, effectively, a fairly conventional staging of Čapek’s text with Janáček’s music.  Tcherniakov brings out the black comedy at its core – the audience audibly reacted to the implausibility of someone living over three hundred years with laughter.  He populates the stage with flesh and blood characters who react to and engage with the text in a highly believable manner.  As the evening progresses, we become aware that everything is not quite as it seems.  It might be the sight of the cast professionally tidying up the piles of papers at the end of Act 1, or how the set expands to reveal the characters milling around in the corridors outside the room in Act 2.

But Tcherniakov has a trick up his sleeve.  He creates a truly remarkable coup de théâtre for the final scene.  It’s taking all I have not to write about it, but this is a moment that really benefits from revealing its truth to the audience in a completely unexpected way.  The result is a stroke of genius that’s devastating and deeply moving, especially as it finds its focus in Hertlizius’s searing incarnation of EM’s final moments.  Tcherniakov gives us a meditation on what it means to be facing the end, to reflect on a life well lived, and to acknowledge the finality of death, finding meaning at a time where there’s no more time to do so.  This is a completely overwhelming piece of theatre.

And yet, its effect was compounded by Herlitzius in the central role and Jakub Hrůša’s intensely idiomatic conducting, along with the contributions of a very good ensemble cast.  Herlitzius simply is EM.  What makes her interpretation so powerful is that total connection between the music, the text, and their physical manifestations.  She uses her substantial soprano totally at the service of the music, text and character, bringing out a wealth of detail.  The desperation as she sang of her initial wish to live for another three hundred years was tangible, thanks to the way she shaded the tone, using the size of the voice to overwhelm the listener.  Or that tired exclamation of ‘Elina Makropulos’, the life literally fleeing her body, the voice losing colour.  The autumnal warmth of her soprano was most certainly there, but so was the sheer stage presence, the ability to hold our attention and pull us in – to move us and to make us feel.  This was the work of a truly great singing-actor, nowhere more so than in that unbearably moving final scene.

Getting to hear this score in a house of this size was a physically exhilarating experience.  Under Hrůša’s direction, the rhythmic impetus of the prologue was irresistible.  His conducting brought out the angularity of the orchestral writing, that constant simultaneous rhythmic tapestry, and made it sound so natural.  He also dug deep, bringing out the sadness and melancholy within, that acknowledgement through aching lyricism that this really is the end.  The house orchestra played with an impressive transparency of texture, crucial in allowing the multiple instrumental voices to emerge.  There were a couple of brass accidents along the way – the trumpets were a bit stretched by some of the higher passages – but generally, the quality of the orchestral playing and the sheer range of sonorities that Hrůša elicited from them was most impressive.

The remainder of this ensemble cast was admirable.  Sam Furness made his role debut as Albert Gregor.  It’s a big sing and sits high for his youthful tenor.  He was an energetic stage presence but it did sound like the role took him to his current limits, the tone becoming drier as the evening went on.  He’s clearly a promising artist but I worry that this role was on the heavy side for his undoutedly attractive tenor.  Kevin Conners and Guy de Mey both brought singing of wit and character to their roles, both savouring the text impressively.  As Krista, Deniz Uzun brought a sappy, orange-toned mezzo and coped admirably with the high-lying tessitura.  An announcement was made for Scott Hendricks, singing with a cold, as Baron Prus, but it was hardly necessary.  While the tone was understandably somewhat grainy, he sang with strength and metal.  Tómas Tómasson hectored forcefully as Dr Kolenatý, yet never compromised the integrity of the tone, while Spencer Lang brought a plangent, youthful tenor to Janek.  In the further supporting roles, I was impressed by Katia Ledoux as the Maid.  She’s the owner of a sunny mezzo I would certainly like to hear more of.

This was a transformative afternoon in the theatre.  We were given one of those total operatic experiences where a visionary staging, outstanding conducting and a magnetic central performance came together, the kind of evening that one longs to yet experiences all too rarely.  Indeed, it was very well sung across the board and, in Herlitzius’s EM, one was very much aware of being in the presence of greatness.  There are only two performances of this show left.  Anyone who loves truly great music theatre needs to see it.

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  1. Hope you have the chance to see Mattila as EM. No diss on Herltizius, but Mattila has the voice for the role and the added glamour. Herlitzius is intense but personally I don’t get much detail or interpretation going on underneath. And frankly I think you have a tendency to overlook flaws in singing for singers you like. She most decidedly struggled with much of the writing.

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