Festival theatre; Queen's Hall, Edinburgh; Royal Albert Hall, London
At the abrupt start of The Makropulos Case, strings and wind hurtle into flight while the rest of the orchestra bustles and shoves like gossips elbowing for attention. Those few opening bars, gone in a flash, epitomise one aspect of Janácek's originality. He wanted to capture human conversation in music: choppy, aphoristic and elusive, with brief eloquence or bursts of poignant rhapsody. The harmonies are safely tonal, the impact raw and novel.
Richard Farnes, conducting Opera North in the inaugural opera event of Edinburgh 2012, set an audacious pace, establishing the mood for the entire performance, at once febrile and assured. This new Makropulos was part of Edinburgh's "celebration of the UK's opera companies" (with WNO arriving later last week for a concert performance of Tristan und Isolde). Presumably after devolution they'll just be foreign like everyone else. Whatever the fragile excuse, Tom Cairns's staging – designed by Hildegard Bechtler – more than honoured this high-profile slot.
On first appearance, Janácek's late opera, a setting of a play by his contemporary Karel Capek, seems to be obsessed with the secret of youth. Emilia Marty, born Elena Makropulos and now a celebrated opera singer, was given age-defying medication as a young girl and now, more than 300 years later, is mentally paralysed by the boredom of eternal life. ("300 years to be a filing clerk, 300 years to knit stockings," as Capek's original text reminds us.)
The complicated plot, involving an unresolved law case, Emilia's several identities and a stream of past lovers, is really about learning how to die. The icy heroine melts into pathos only as the secret is revealed and the ageing process, at last, takes grip. In the title role, Yiva Kihlberg, whose biography reveals that she has also been an economist, ballet dancer and rock singer, had a handsome stage presence and performed well. Yet her voice lacked the rich inflections and suggestive power of a great "EM", to use the initials of the diva's ever-changing name. Anja Silja remains the ideal.
Cairns and Bechtler have updated the action to around 1960 while rooting it in the period of its creation – the mid-1920s – with a prototype Bauhaus look, which covers all temporal eventualities and echoes the time-shifting strangeness of the plot. By dividing the large stage into smaller areas the action had powerful focus: at first an open-plan lawyer's office, then on a crescent moon-shaped crimson velvet sofa backstage at the opera, then behind the voile drapes of a bed in Emilia Marty's hotel room, when the end is near. The lighting (by Bruno Poet), low-key and naturalistic, compounded the sense of veracity, moral if not actual, of this troubling opera.
In a strong ensemble cast, Robert Hayward (Baron Prus), Mark Le Brocq (Vitek), Paul Nilon (Albert Gregor) and James Creswell (Dr Kolenaty) kept the fast-moving, high-lying vocal writing comprehensible. The text was sung in workable English, a good decision by Opera North, which sticks to the original language unless there are reasons not to – in this case few arias and dense, rapid dialogue, in Czech. The orchestra, with nowhere to hide in the theatre's exposed, front-of-stage "pit", played the tricky score with immense flair, which made any fluffs forgivable. The production is part of Opera North's autumn season in Leeds and on tour. But this month and next, catch their unmissable, life-enhancing, never-walk-alone Carousel at the Barbican, until 15 September.
The Queen's Hall series, for many the musical heart of the festival, opened on a high with Trio Zimmermann in Schubert, Schoenberg and Mozart. Violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, viola player Antoine Tamestit and cellist Christian Poltéra spend most of their working lives as soloists, coming together as a string trio a couple of times each season. The benefits – technical prowess combined with collegiate familiarity – produce music making of an exciting, firebrand quality.
The trio movement by Schubert, in B flat D471, in which musical ideas pass generously between instruments, offered serenity before the dark demands of Schoenberg's Op 45. The three instruments are required to abandon lyricism in favour of percussive gesture, from stabbing chords to using the wood of the bow. Hallucinatory harmonics and other ghostly, hushed effects make rigorous demands on players and listeners. Writing it after grave illness, Schoenberg agreed that the work was near impossible to play. The Trio Zimmermann proved him comprehensively wrong, before smiling again in Mozart's grand, six-movement Divertimento in E flat K563.
Sadly for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, their Usher Hall concert was cancelled owing to a power cut. All lights, however, were blazing at the Royal Albert Hall, including the weird, intermittently changing coloured spaghetti worms on the panel behind the orchestra designed, I think, to illumine our listening. The fabulous BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Manze, played three Vaughan Williams symphonies. Once, the very idea would have emptied the place faster than a fire alarm. On Thursday the hall was packed.
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