Why does the opera always feel the need to apologize for its plots?
Leos Janacek did not like long operas, and the first act of The Makropoulos Affair is a masterclass in how to put together drama without an ounce of grease. There is a prelude: driving motor rhythms, surges of emotion, and somewhere far away – far away (or long ago) – the sound of trumpets. The curtain rises and we abruptly step into a law firm from the beginning of the 20th century. The trial they are discussing is long and complex: aren’t they always so? No matter. At the end of the act, these swaggering professional men were interrupted by the magnetic and imperious diva Emilia Marty, who knows things about Gregor’s century-old case against Prus that no living person could. We are intrigued. End of the first act. It’s not difficult – is it?
Welsh National Opera clearly disagrees, because at that point tenor Mark Le Brocq (playing lawyer Vitek) came out with a flipchart, broke character and after telling us that the first act was incomprehensible even to the cast, proceeded to recap the entire plot thus far, as if the trial was anything but a MacGuffin. It was embarrassing enough, and you recoiled in sympathy for Le Brocq (imagine being delegated to deliver such an artistic admission of defeat). He ended with a spoiler: the big reveal at the very end of the opera, completely blown away.
Why? Why do opera professionals do things like this? It is true that opera has long been subject to abuse, some of which is partially valid, but most of which is pure prejudice. And the most meaningless defamation is that opera plots are unusually absurd or convoluted. Bollocks: Every good mystery begins with a puzzle, and large-scale narratives in any medium become confusing when reduced to a dust jacket summary. Try to tell game of thrones – or just about anything Shakespeare – in 100 words. But only the opera routinely apologizes, begs to explain itself, and – in a tacit admission that any aspiration to function as entertainment has long since been abandoned – releases synopses that reveal essential plot twists. Why this grimace? Why this lack of faith? Why break a brilliantly cast spell and raise a totally unnecessary white flag?
The strangest thing is that the director of this new production, Olivia Fuchs, is superb in Janacek. His Katia Kabanova at Holland Park and Cunning little vixen at Longborough were models of inventive and emotionally engaged storytelling. And so it was: Nicola Turner’s designs set the drama in its proper setting, 1920s Prague, with rear projections and some wonderful, unexpected moments of stage magic (dusty piles of legal papers suddenly exploded skyward ) to suggest that there are more things in heaven and on earth. Fuchs used the commotion and chatter of all this exposition of the first act to help draw the characters. Nicky Spence was an awkward, over-compensating Albert Gregor (the tension and focus of his voice was a real asset here), Harriet Eyley’s wise Krista withered like a cut flower before the icy charisma of Marty, David Stout sang with dignified swagger as Baron Prus, and as Marty herself, Angeles Blancas Gulin was both sultry and aloof, outlining her lofty phrases in shimmering neon.
Again – why the failure of the nerf? I imagine Fuchs had a twisted arm, but anyway, having been kicked out of the opera world, I’m not sure I ever fully returned to it. It might be unfair to say that the next two acts (in which Gulin wore a crimson hairpiece and a white fear wig before ending up completely bald) veered camp, and the heavily lit denouement was too nervous to allow to the emotion to find its own level, even if Gulin – backed by the bristling, fiercely unsentimental playing of the WNO Orchestra under Tomas Hanus – absolutely flamboyant. Previously, Alan Oke managed to be both funny and intensely touching as the decrepit Count Hauk-Sendorf. Overall, however, so much of Fuchs’ production felt, looked and sounded good that I wish I could have experienced it without a disruption that would have had a devastating effect out of all proportion. with its short duration and good intentions.
In London, Santtu-Matias Rouvali led the Philharmonia into a satisfying, high-octane season opener. Vikingur Olafsson played John Adams’ recent piano concerto Does the devil have to have all the best bits? – a one-note work from which Olafsson managed to pull a rainbow of textural shades, before topping it all off with a tiny encore of Rameau that could have been molded from freshly fallen snow . And then Rouvali conducted Mahler’s Fifth Symphony: a carefree, interventionist reading, constantly teasing and caressing the individual phrases, to which the Philharmonic – from low horns upwards – responded as if it were a gigantic string Quartet. The players seemed enamored with their young principal bandleader; and I understand that they really are.