Born in 1854, just a year after Verdi premiered La traviata, Czech composer Leoš Janáček is best known today for the works he composed in the 20th century. Completed in 1925, his The Makropulos Affair counts as one of these, an opera whose libretto the composer also wrote the after a story by Karel Čapek. The tale tells of Emilia Marty, an attractive singer who once, centuries ago, was subject to a test with an elixir meant to prolong her life. Since the potion actually worked, she went on to live through many lifetimes in various countries under changing names, for no fewer than 337 years. To outwit death and attain immortality is, of course, a far-fetched dream as old as humankind. But is it not precisely the finite nature of life that makes it so precious? Given that, the opera is as much horror story as it is tale of a one woman’s tragedy.

Evelyn Herlitzius (Emilia Marty) and Sam Furness (Albert Gregor)
© Monika Rittershaus

From Act 1, as the effect of the elixir begins to wear off, “Marty”– as the woman is called – is willing to use any means to get her hands on the potion’s lost recipe. She deploys her feminine charm and erotic appeal to meet her own selfish ends, and while men of all ages lose their heads over her again and again, she remains unmoved by them in return. One of her lovers, Jaroslav Prus, (sung by the excellent Scott Hendricks) confesses that to make love to her was like “holding a dead woman in my arms”. Once she does find the potion’s recipe, however, she realises that the pursuit of life alone is worthless: “This terrible solitude!” she says. “you feel that your soul is dead inside.” In the end, by actually dying, she even induces a degree of sympathy among her cohorts.

And such was the case in Zurich, perhaps owing to the German soprano Evelyn Herzlitzius incomparably strong delivery more than anything else. No interval in Janáček’s demanding score stymied her; no physical test brought her down. Herlitzius simply nailed the part, her acting skills supporting what made a rare diamond of a truly dark figure. While a comparatively small-framed woman, she has a stage presence that electrifies. Herlitzius’s voice – which easily carried at least half of all the opera’s vocal music – lent the whole score immediacy, conviction and nuances that were second to none.

Evelyn Herlitzius (Emilia Marty)
© Monika Rittershaus

Dmitri Tcherniakov’s artistic direction dealt nicely with the profusion of lesser, and equally desperate – if mortal – characters. In the first scene, Tómas Tómasson’s portrayal of the lawyer Dr Kolenaty set a fine standard. Later, as an ominous and bald-headed Count Hauk-Schendorf, Guy de Mey delivered his booming voice from a wheelchair, while Kevin Conners sang an impressive Vitek. Even in lesser roles, Ruben Drole as the machinist and Irène Friedli, as the cleaning woman, sang well.

Nonetheless, Act 1, particularly, was simply plagued as far as acting goes. The repeated gestures of impatience and frustration shown by Sam Furness in the role of Albert Gregor, for example, were almost Vaudevillian, despite his vocal delivery being spot on. “Less is more” went entirely by the wayside in acting as unchecked as it was frenetic. What’s more, the subsequent commotion with all the principals standing like a chorus line seemed less than imaginative. Fortunately, that hullabaloo was reined in thereafter.

Tomás Tómasson (Dr Kolenatý), Evelyn Herlitzius (Emilia Marty) and Sam Furness (Albert Gregor)
© Monika Rittershaus

In a large salon with mauve, fabric-covered walls, Tcherniakov's set reeks of bourgeois; its gracious semicircle and subtle lighting (masterfully done by Gleb Filshtinsky) could be home to a privileged owner anywhere in the world. But in Act 3, Marty’s confession and eventual death were broadcast in front of a live, on-stage audience some 120 strong. Those members of both Zurich Opera’s supplementary choir and extras were seated around all sides of the backstage as if at a talk show. They clapped and cheered, as one does in such broadcasts, rendering the action a “public” trial, but also giving the tragedy of Marty’s demise a decidedly modern twist.

Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša, a Janáček expert, debuted here with the superb Philharmonia Zürich, whose brass, harp and woodwinds distinguished themselves particularly, even if the full orchestra overpowered the singers in some of the more hysterical sequences.

In the course of his work on this opera, Janáček confessed feeling ever-increasing sympathy for his heroine Marty, who had had to live and bear her infinite isolation over so many generations. Even though most of what the woman does seems utterly outrageous, he warmed enough to her to say: “I would like everyone to love her in the end.” Heaven help us, but point taken.