Monday, October 27, 2008

MAKROPULOS performance

The Makropulos Thing, or Nothing Lasts Forever.

There isn’t much more to be said about the current run of the OA ‘The Makropulos Secret’ (1926), music and libretto by Leos Janacek. The praise has been pretty well unanimous and superlative. We went last Tuesday when it was conducted by Stephen Mould.

Neil Armfield and Carl Friedrich Oberle, and not least a cast of superb acting singers, manage to engage you at the second of curtain-up and never release you till the final shadow appears. It is fantastic theatre. Yes, people sat really still during Janacek. Without theatre of this standard, I imagine it becomes that much harder, as in too hard, to make Makropulos work.

Robert Gard deserves special and repeated mention. He jolts the stage into life when he enters. He alone, in a performance of a remarkable mix of delicacy and broad strokes, manages to raise Emily from her hereto stultifying ennui. I have to wonder if he hasn’t found the secret. My first memory of him was also Janacek, my first Janacek, in another exceptional local (John Copley) production of Jenufa, with Lone Koppel Winter and Elizabeth Connell facing off. Robert Gard sang Steva, 34 years ago. It was a revelation in music theatre and my template was set. I think it was the first time I was aware of seeing opera for its content, not just its form. It was Elizabeth Connell’s last night before leaving for the Northern Hemisphere except for a single farewell Wagnerian recital. At final curtain, friends of Connell, and there were lots, had shredded the nightly cast fliers into floaty squares of snow which were flung from the upper front boxes when she took her solo curtain. The audience was stamping its feet. I miss that level of excitement and enthusiasm too Emily. I somehow ended up in a small crowd at the Bennelong Restaurant where it happened she (Connell) was celebrating her birthday at another table. Waiter’s gossip. A bottle of bubbly was sent, she beamed, then stood and waved, and everyone laughed and sang, across the tables and across the restaurant.

Back to Makropulos - the set is not unlike the 1995 (Hoheisel) Glyndebourne production. It is a delicious yawning horn, or helix, or time tube, or a genetic helix, (or ground floor Australia Square, for the less romantic) opening to the full extent of the proscenium. It is beautifully dressed and filled with an elegance and reverance for the little things – reaching for a book, bobbing heads in the snow outside the stage-door, frozen moments of life.

Musically, and philosophically, The Makropulos Thingy is challenging, or rather challenges me. It begins, and continues, infused with restless striving, short motifs of strain to gain, aborted and repeated, aborted and repeated, none two the same. It is almost harrowing at times, and all this starting in a legal office, where combatants prepare to win and winning, as far as I see it, is all that matters.

As it finally approaches resolution of purpose, the great closing moments, where ‘nothing has purpose’ is replaced by the greatest purpose of all, death, Janacek delivers an almost Straussian orgasm, an ecstasy of relief, but nothing redemptive, nothing anticipated, nothing if not nihilism. Admittedly, Emily is different to other dealers in immortality - she had longevity imposed on her, while most others solicit and bargain for it. She lets it all go for no other reason than she doesn’t want it any more (or was it sleeping with Prus). Moreover she ultimately declares the soul will die with her, which didn’t quite fit the final stunning visuals, both as beautiful and as meaningless as they were.

This must say a lot about Janacek; he wrote the libretto, based on Karel Capek's comedy, as well as the music. He was born in 1854 in Moravia, the ninth of thirteen children, in a time and place where Church, school and home were closely integrated. By the age of eleven he was at an Augustinian Monastery, where from chorister he became choir master and finally composer. He went on to become a declared atheist, holding organised religion in contempt, describing it as ‘…concentrated death. Tombs under the floor, bones on the altar, pictures full of torture and dying. Rituals, prayers, chants – death and nothing but death. I don’t want to have anything to do with it’. His muse, Kamila Stösslová, was Jewish.

Next step, The Glagolitic Mass (1927), there will be clues there.

Meantime, a paper “Immortality and Meaning: Reflections on the Makropulos Debate”, Mikel Burley, (Department of Philosophy, University of Leeds), has surfaced. More on that later, or for those interested in sooner, here it is.


Anonymous said...

Comments on later posts seem to be disabled. Otherwise I would have said something about your SSO bombshell post.

wanderer said...

My apologies M. Corrected. I'm afraid I'm a slow learner.