“But everybody ends up dying!” laments Emilia Marty as the penny drops for those gathered around her deathbed in Opera North’s enthralling, slick version of Janacek’s 1926 masterpiece. If the man-eating diva is telling the truth, then she really is 337 years old - the guinea pig for an elixir of life invented in 1585 - and had she revealed the unlikely fact from the outset, the tragedies she has brought into their lives would not have transpired.
Nigel Robson (Hauk-Sendorf) and Ylva Kihlberg (Emilia Marty) in The Makropulos Case at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh Photo: Donald Cooper
Based on Karel Capek’s comedy play about a legal challenge to an ancient will, Janacek’s bitter-sweet satire laces its weighty themes - immortality and the loss of lust for life - with comic elements such as ribbing aspiring singers, MacGuffin-like secret documents and farce-like incest, plus a string of barbed asides on celebrity and sexuality.
Musically, you’ll search hard for motifs in Janacek’s inventive recitative, and he saves the big emotional guns for Emilia’s end as it draws near, the themes bursting through with exquisite soundtrack beauty. Respecting this, director Tom Cairns has gone for understated vocal performances, while beefing up the physical acting. A wise decision.
As Emilia Marty, Ylva Kihlberg plays up the fading diva powerfully but sensitively and, if not always projecting well, her mellow soprano brings an enviable range of sympathetic hues to this complex protagonist. From a well-matched cast, Paul Nilon gets right under the skin of Albert Gregor, the nerdy challenger to his forebear’s will.
Sarah Pring sparkles in the Cleaner’s cameos, while Stephanie Corley, as the plucky love interest Kristina, gives the most consistent performance of the night.
It’s not all perfect. Norman Tucker’s Sadler’s Wells translation of Janacek’s Czech libretto is sluggish and captures the cadences of neither language. Meanwhile, under conductor Richard Farnes, this is not the tightest of orchestras you’ll encounter, and it sounds shrill in the Festival Theatre. Luckily, and ironically, this brings a modern looseness that immensely lifts and propels the complex score. Add to that Hildegard Bechtler’s simple but sumptuous 1920s set and costumes, and you have a vibrant production to die for.