The Curse of Immortality

Jesse Simon
martes, 1 de marzo de 2022
Guth, Věc Makropulos © 2022 by Monika Rittershaus Guth, Věc Makropulos © 2022 by Monika Rittershaus
Berlin, domingo, 13 de febrero de 2022. Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Janáček: Věc Makropulos. Claus Guth, director. Marlis. Petersen (Emilia Marty). Ludovit Ludha (Albert Gregor). Peter Hoare (Vítek). Natalia Skrycka (Krista). Bo Skovhus (Jaroslav Prus). Spencer Britten (Janek). Jan Martiník (Dr. Kolenatý). Žilvinas Miškinis (Engineer). Adriane Queiroz (Cleaning Woman). Jan Ježek (Hauk-Šendorf). Anna Kissjudit (Chambermaid). Staatskapelle Berlin. Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

Many of Janáček’s later operas deal broadly with the theme of redemption, but the routes they take to get there are remarkably diverse, from bleak brutality to gentle comedy. Although Věc Makropulos also concludes on a note of redemption, the prevailing mood of the opera is less certain and all the more fascinating for it: in the course of its three reasonably brief acts it touches on legal procedural, historical mystery, and complex chamber drama, revealing itself only in the final scenes as a tragedy of sorts, albeit an unconventional one. 

Although Claus Guth’s new production at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden adopted a sombre tone that left little room for frivolity or lightness, its meticulously directed action and haunting imagery – heightened by a commanding performance of the title role from Marlis Petersen and bracingly dramatic musical direction from Sir Simon Rattle – made for a compelling, occasionally unsettling journey into the frayed psyche of a character who has lived several hundred years too long in the prison of her own life.

Janáček: Věc Makropulos. Claus Guth, director. Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Februry 2022. © 2022 by Monika Rittershaus.Janáček: Věc Makropulos. Claus Guth, director. Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Februry 2022. © 2022 by Monika Rittershaus.

Mr Guth’s staging – often understated, but always inventive – fit broadly into the Staatsoper’s recent run of conspicuously lavish productions: it featured unfailingly beautiful costumes and detailed sets evoking an idealised version of a specific time and place, in this case central Europe in the early-twentieth century. Yet the elegance of the staging never came at the expense of basic storytelling; indeed the look of Mr Guth’s staging was inseparable from the drama he was attempting to illustrate. The set consisted of three rooms that shuttled back and forth during the intervals between acts, and the outer rooms – a lawyer’s office with imposing filing cabinets, the backstage corridor of a theatre and, in the third act, the lobby of a hotel – were all dark woods, brass fixtures and hanging lamps that suffused everything with a warm amber glow. Yet the central room, to which Emilia/Elina retreated in between acts was mostly empty and filled with a white light that was harsh, cold, and unbearably bright. This simple contrast between warm and cool gave Emilia’s disconnection from the real world a vivid immediacy.

If Mr Guth seemed determined to create memorable images, his efforts were always subordinate to a clear vision of the action. The stage was often busy, but in a way that heightened the central drama: in the first act, a group of clerks moved through the office carrying out administrative tasks, but their actions were synchronised with graceful precision, and their slow, stylised movement had a heightened artifice that mirrored the fundamental strangeness of the story. In the final act, the clerks were replaced by an equally disciplined group of bellboys and chambermaids whose odd, occasionally acrobatic movements and actions allowed Mr Guth to build a background of measured insanity to accompany the reveal of Emilia’s secret.

Janáček: Věc Makropulos. Claus Guth, director. Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Februry 2022. © 2022 by Monika Rittershaus.Janáček: Věc Makropulos. Claus Guth, director. Sir Simon Rattle, conductor. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Februry 2022. © 2022 by Monika Rittershaus.

Admittedly some of the male characters were somewhat indistinct, distinguishable more through costume and appearance than through any sense of motivation or personal qualities. Yet this too seemed a conscious decision: Mr Guth was less interested in granting the peripheral characters autonomy than in bringing us into the world of Elina Makropulos, a life in which a parade of interchangeable men fell at her feet with flowers, but from which she felt a profound alienation; everything around her had taken on a brown patina from which no vibrance could ever be gleaned. If Mr Guth presented the surrounding characters and locations as muted and drab, the character of Elina herself was highly charged and often deeply uncomfortable to watch. Her scenes conveyed the sense of a moribund figure perpetually on the verge of physical collapse, able to hold it together only as long as it took to find the formula that would prolong her life; in between acts she returned to her bright-white fog-filled room where, to the disquieting sound of laboured breathing amplified through the auditorium, she struggled to shed her clothes and dress again for the next act. It was in these interstitial moments that we were allowed to witness the terrible burden of everlasting life.

Mr Guth’s conception of Elina/Emilia could easily have fallen flat had it not been for Marlis Petersen, who delivered a physical performance of extraordinary commitment. In the first act she established a presence for whom even the basic act of standing required tremendous force of will, in the second she fended off her various suitors with palpable exhaustion, and her half-manic half-drunk episodes in the final act gave the confession scene an edge of genuine madness; yet despite maintaining a high level of physical intensity, she remained wholly at ease with the role’s vocal demands. Although technique was always placed in the service of character – at no point did the performance turn into a showcase – Ms Petersen commanded nearly every scene, giving the second act its dramatic force and granting a luminous power to the moment at which Elina’s confession gives way to an acceptance of death.

It was a performance that few others could match, although Bo Skovhus provided the evening with an excellent Baron Prus, commanding and contemptuous in his excellent second act appearances, and even better in the third act, where his imperious façade broke down to reveal grief and shame. Ludovit Ludha, although not as involving a presence, had the right ardent tone for Albert Gregor’s volatile mixture of love and hate, and his emphatic delivery had an edge of desperation. Peter Hoare was a strong Vitek in the opening even the staging sidelined him somewhat in subsequent scenes, Natalia Skrycka veered between serious and impetuous as Krista, and Jan Martiník, while perhaps lighter in tone than one might expect for Dr Kolenatý, delivered the opera’s complex back-story with considerable agility.

During the previous decade Sir Simon Rattle teamed up with the Staatsoper for memorable productions of Kat’a Kabanova and From the House of the Dead, and it was clear from those evenings that he holds the operas of Janáček in the highest regard. His reading of Makropulos was expressive and often very direct: the moments of orchestral frenzy that rose to the surface during the encounter between Albert and Emilia in the second act gave the scene its dramatic charge, and the conclusion of the same act had an explosive power. Even more impressive was the confession scene of the third act which maintained its plateau of intensity through Sir Simon’s ability to navigate the sudden shifts between soft string passages and full orchestra volleys.

Sir Simon’s reading, while rarely understated, had a compelling emotional honesty; one would have come away with a very different impression had the evening been conducted with greater restraint and less immediacy of feeling. The staging too had a similar conviction in its approach: Věc Makropulos is an elusive, multi-faceted work, and if Mr Guth had less time for the opera’s more conventional dramatic episodes – the relationships that develop between Emilia and the various men drawn into her orbit – the production gained its undeniable force through its focus on the immense solitude that arises from immortality. 

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