For everyone else, time passes, but not for Elina Makropulos (aka Emilia Marty). As the prelude to The Makropulos Affair unfolds, video projections show us clockwork mechanisms, the sand of a timer and a woman in despair, artfully shot in soft-focus black and white by Sam Sharples. With Janáček’s stirring, restless music played virtuosically by Tomáš Hanus and the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, the scene is set for Karel Čapek’s drama.

Ángeles Blancas Gulín (Emilia Marty)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The Makropulos Affair is a morality tale at heart, a “beware of what you wish for” on the desire for eternal youth. Its structure is unique to any opera I know: a 300-year old plot whose fantastic nature is gradually revealed to its characters. It demands uniform excellence of acting from its eleven singers to draw you into the story and that’s exactly what director Olivia Fuchs gets from her cast, starting from Mark LeBrocq as the solicitor’s clerk, Vitek, as he talks us through the legal case of Gregor vs Prus, which has been giving him and his boss Dr Kolenatý (the urbane Gustáv Beláček) and their families a living for generations, in a sort of Czech version of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce in Dickens’ Bleak House. David Stout is a powerful Baron Prus, Nicky Spence an ardent Albert Gregor. Harriet Eyley and Alexander Sprague were enjoyable as the youngsters Kristina and Janek, and Alan Oke delivered a hilarious cameo as the geriatric Hauk-Šendorf.

Alan Oke (Hauk-Šendorf)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The music is as unique as the dramatic structure which it matches: fragmented, full of ideas which go nowhere until its rapturous, transcendent ending. Hanus knows this music backwards (it’s being played from his own critical edition) and it shows in an apparently endless series of wonderfully orchestrated phrases in which the instrumental colours shine through, the tempi moving the action forward in a way that’s relentlessly propulsive but never hard on the ear.

Nicola Turner’s set and costume designs are straightforwardly and authentically 1920s (Janáček first saw Čapek’s Več Makropulos in 1922, which makes this a kind of centenary, and the opera premiered three years later). There’s a commendable amount of detail in the settings for each of the three acts. Your eye is unerringly drawn to the imposing ranks of filing cabinets in Kolenatý’s law office, the mountain of blood-red floral tributes in Marty’s dressing room at the opera house, and the opulent bedclothes and drapes of her bedroom, as well as the monogrammed “EM” suitcases that tell of her nomadic nature.

The Makropulos Case
© Richard Hubert Smith

The staging is largely uncontroversial, with just one element that will split the crowds. In the substantial scene change between Acts 1 and 2, LeBrocq delivers a monologue, assisted by a giant Prus family tree, in which he explains the intricacies of the legal case that has just been explained to us “for the benefit of non-Czech speakers”. There were raised eyebrows and I doubt the explanation was needed for most of the audience, but LeBrocq delivered it with fun and panache.

In a production that was almost uniformly excellent, I’m sorry to say that Ángeles Blancas Gulín did not convince me in the title role. Gulín acted and sang with plenty of intensity and she had more than enough power to fill the substantial volume of the Donald Gordon Theatre, but in contrast to the clear Czech enunciation of other cast members, her voice seemed rather covered, with syllables not clearly enunciated, and I was occasionally startled by intonation faults. Gulín wasn’t helped by the evening’s one staging misfire. She should be seen as impossibly alluring in the Acts 1 and 2 and become ghastly only in Act 3 as her elixir wears off. Here, she was made up throughout in whiteface or nearly so, with unflattering costumes and headwear. That jarred with the plot – although her change to chemotherapy-patient bald at the end was effective.

Ángeles Blancas Gulín (Emilia Marty)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Born in 1585, Elina Makropulos would be 437 years old today. Perhaps because it’s so unique in dramatic and musical structure, her opera isn’t often performed today, even in the Czech Republic, although WNO will be taking this production to Brno in November. That makes this production a rare and worthwhile opportunity to see it. May she have many more centuries of youth.

****1