Scuttlebutt has it that much of Janáček’s later work was inspired by a largely unreciprocated passion he developed for a married woman nearly 40 years his junior. The heroine of his legal procedural sci-fi thriller, The Makropulos Case – the icy, contemptuous Emilia Marty – would seem to be less than an ideal muse. Perhaps that reflected Janáček’s coming to terms with rejection.

Aleš Briscein (Gregor) and Gitta-Maria Sjöberg (Emilia Marty) © Patrik Borecký (Brno, 2014)
Aleš Briscein (Gregor) and Gitta-Maria Sjöberg (Emilia Marty)
© Patrik Borecký (Brno, 2014)

Marty’s portrayal by the formidable Annalena Persson at the Hong Kong Arts Festival last Saturday summoned up Jessica Chastain in the role of Elizabeth Sloane, the Washington lobbyist with a heart of stone in the eponymous Miss Sloane. Female leads in Hollywood are rarely this callous and calculating, and feminist movie critics today are celebrating the small but increasing number of strong, unsympathetic movie heroines. Janáček appears to have led the way back in 1926, with this adaptation of a play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek about a 300-year-old woman who will stop at nothing to retrieve the formula for the anti-aging elixir that her alchemist father concocted centuries ago.

Driven by demons, both Marty and Sloane use and discard those around them to achieve their dubious ends. And yet both reveal hints of vulnerability beneath their marble exteriors – in the end, committing an act of heroic self-sabotage.

This is David Radok’s taut 2014 staging that the National Theatre Brno has brought to Hong Kong in Makropulos’ maiden journey to Asia. The designs are muted and realistic, everything in shades of grey, apart from Marty’s glamorous outfits – after all, her day job is that of opera diva. The action onstage is understated, from the stagehands who maneuver among the cast during the seamless set changes to the leads who stride about, lounge around, spar and have sex with a naturalness that only underscores the beauty of the language and music. The grittiness is no more evident than in the opening of the third act, the curtain rising on Marty’s hotel bedroom in the aftermath of her seduction of Baron Prus (Svatopluk Sem). The dishevelment onstage is crowned by the stark nakedness of Sem, slumped on the edge of the bed, head in hand, tattered boxers around his ankles.

Aleš Briscein (Gregor) and Eva Štěrbová (Kristina) © Patrik Borecký (Brno, 2014)
Aleš Briscein (Gregor) and Eva Štěrbová (Kristina)
© Patrik Borecký (Brno, 2014)

The original Czech, in the conversational speech-melody that Janáček invented, sounds lush (to this non-Czech speaker), full of nooks and crannies that these assured singers explored fearlessly. The orchestra was part of the conversation, too, frequently spinning its own yarns, not just in the bracing perorations that wind up each act. The orchestra seemed to mock attorney Kolenatý’s dry exposition of the legal case that had entangled the Gregor and Prus families for nearly a century. And it responded disapprovingly to a petty lovers’ quarrel between the young aspiring singer Kristina and her fiancé Janek with a furious scraping of violins. Conductor Marko Ivanović had a very athletic evening, corralling the spirited musicians and achieving a near-perfect balance between singers and orchestra.

We didn’t have to stretch our imagination to picture any of the singers in their roles; they could have straight come out of Hollywood central casting. Preeminently, Persson – statuesque and sexy in an overripe way, with voice to match, strutting around in bra and panties, stilettos and atrocious wigs, carelessly flinging on a mink coat to ward off the chill. In a final shocking about-face, once Marty had procured the magic formula that would prolong her life, she acknowledged that eternal life meant nothing to her now. She abandoned the document and freed her platinum blonde mane from its last egregious wig. The shimmer reflected from her hair seemed to illuminate her whole body as she commanded the drop curtain to fall, yielding to the inevitability of death.

Petr Levíček (Vítek) © Patrik Borecký (Brno, 2014)
Petr Levíček (Vítek)
© Patrik Borecký (Brno, 2014)

The men who succumb to Marty’s depredations were not mere cartoons but three-dimensional aristos and members of the intelligentsia in various states of misfortune. While even the smaller roles were sung with impressive color and clarity, standouts were Aleš Briscein, whose silvery tenor movingly captured the ardent and bewildered Albert Gregor, and Svatopluk Sem whose tightly coiled baritone rendered the blustering, embittered Baron Prus. The lovely, wide-eyed Eva Štěrbová in the role of Kristina sang sweetly and was appropriately decimated when her fiancé (the endearing Petr Račko in the role of Janek) fell for Marty then killed himself.

The animated Petr Levíček in the role of the beleaguered solicitor Vitek opened the proceedings with a witty excoriation of the gentry (“men who owe their privileges to kings and tyrants”). On the verge of death, Persson brought the curtain down with the ironic “in the end it’s the same, Kristina: singing and silence.” They are not the same, of course, not when the singing spills from Janáček’s pen. Though this bracing production may be treasured by Janáček devotees, it is equally a smashing introduction to opera for newcomers – particularly those fans of modern psychological thrillers.