The strange yet compelling story of the 350-year-old opera singer Elina Makropulos was Opera North’s showcase in a production première at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

Opera North’s production of Janáček’s The Makropulos Case. Director Tom Cairns, Set and Costum © Robert Workman
Opera North’s production of Janáček’s The Makropulos Case. Director Tom Cairns, Set and Costum
© Robert Workman

Leoš Janáček wrote The Makropulos Affair, his penultimate opera, based on the Karel Čapek play about Elina Makropulos, who was given a potion to preserve her youth when she was sixteen. It is a suspenseful thriller of a story, requiring a stand-out performance for a soprano to inhabit the main role.

The opera opens in the lawyer Dr Kolenatý’s office, where Albert Gregor waits for a court verdict over his inheritance in the very long-running Gregor vs. Prus case, where Prus died seemingly intestate. The much-admired opera singer Emilia Marty arrives, and curiously is not only able to confirm that there is a will, but also to shed light on exactly where it might be found. As a search party is sent out, Gregor begins to become infatuated with Marty, and when the will is found the questions begin. Backstage at the opera, Marty realises that there should be another, older document in the same house, which is the recipe for the youthful potion, and she sends the boy Janek Prus to steal it. In the last act, in Marty’s hotel bedroom, all secrets are revealed.

In the lawyers’ office, we had strong performances from James Creswell as Kolenatý, Mark Le Brocq as Vítek (his clerk, who climbed a ladder to seek out the dusty legal tomes while railing against the firm’s wealthy clients), and Paul Nilon as Gregor, so impatient to hear the court verdict. The amount of legal detail to be covered was complicated, but the story was effectively told. This performance was sung in English with surtitles, which aided understanding of the plot complexities as well as revealing some surprisingly amusing dialogue, but it also helped cover some patchy diction.

There was a delightful vignette from Nigel Robson as Count Hauk-Šendorf, who had a relationship with a certain Eugenia Montez fifty years ago, and now wants to leave his wife and take Marty back to Spain, as she understandably reminds him of his former lover – she was one and the same.

Hildegard Bechtler’s striking and stylish set designs, ably lit by Bruno Poet, were a special highlight of the evening. The plush green lawyer’s office became grungy backstage at the opera just by stacking a few chairs and introducing a semicircular red banquette, from which Marty held court. In the final scene, there was a bed centre-stage, surrounded by an elliptical floor-to-ceiling white net curtain with orange hotel chairs. The opera plays with time, and there was a functioning analogue clock in the lawyers’ office, which was stopped in Act II at the Opera House and complemented by a digital clock in Act III in the Hotel – both clocks counting to 12 o’clock as the opera ended.

The music was an ever-changing, restless variety of patterns, by turns passionate, rhythmic and disjointed, and never quite settling down until the very end as Marty finally finds peace. From an uncertain start in the pit, this performance took time to warm up, and musically only kindled true passion in the last act, where Emilia Marty’s history was finally revealed to all. Swedish soprano Ylva Kihlberg knocked back whisky and bounced defiantly on her hotel bed, as conductor Richard Farnes stoked up the tension in the orchestra. It was left to Vítek’s daughter Kristina, brightly sung by Stephanie Corrley, to consign the potion recipe to the flames.

Ultimately, I was not entirely convinced by Kihlberg’s slightly underpowered performance. Marty is supposed to electrify the stage from her first entrance, and although other characters in the opera were drawn to her, she was not as compelling as she might have been. Perhaps director Tom Cairns was focusing on her unlikeable traits and vulnerability. Only in the final act, launching into a tirade about her past, and the trials of having to live for so long as she aged before our eyes, did we get a glimpse of what a more even performance might have been.

After a focus on concert performances of operas at Edinburgh Festivals in recent years, it was heartening to see a fully staged production, which should grow in stature as it goes on to form part of Opera North’s main autumn season.