“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” These wise words have fortunately not fallen on deaf ears at the Opéra de Paris, who have brought back their production of Leoš Janáček’s The Makropulos Affair, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski and designed by Małgorzata Szczęśniak, first presented in Paris back in 2007. Since then Janáček’s masterpiece, his eighth and second-to-last opera, has graced the Parisian stage fifteen times, still vested in its original set and decorations. Whilst change is sometimes welcomed in a returning opera, it seems this particular production has not yet outstayed its welcome amongst Parisian audiences.

Atilla Kiss-B. (Albert Gregor), Ricarda Merbeth (Emilia Marty) et Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Dr Kolenat © Opéra national de Paris / Mirco Magliocca
Atilla Kiss-B. (Albert Gregor), Ricarda Merbeth (Emilia Marty) et Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Dr Kolenat
© Opéra national de Paris / Mirco Magliocca

Shifted from its original 1920s Prague setting, this production brings its audience forward 30 years (though the occasional appearance of a mobile phone puts this into question), to a Hollywood-styled era of glamour, glitz and style. A cinematic opening made up of film extracts of the life of Marilyn Monroe is shown during the work’s lavish overture, quite clearly outlining the production’s context and setting. We are quick to understand that the main protagonist, Emilia Marty, has evolved (perhaps in continuation with the original story’s underlying question of immortality and eternal beauty), now taking on the form of international singer and seductress Marilyn Monroe. Placing the opera’s main character, also a famous singer and quintessential “femme fatale”, in the shoes of Marilyn Monroe adds a clever element to the opera’s context.

Focusing the production on such a specific and unique character is a risky move, but one that ultimately fits nicely with Janáček’s original setting. Inspired by the play of the same name by Karel Capek, Janáček’s self-written libretto focuses not on the original play’s philosophical developments and propositions but rather on the singularly personal female passions and motivations of his principal character Emilia, inspired by the powerful (and ultimately unrequited) love felt for Kamila Stösslova, Janáček’s muse and artistic influence.

Conceived with such emotion, the passionate and fragmented music inspired by this relationship was beautifully brought to life by the Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris, under the firm direction of Susanna Mälkki, musical director of France’s Ensemble Intercontemporain and a conductor worthy of even greater attention. In an opera of constantly shifting melodies without any arias, duets, choruses or orchestral interludes, the challenge is one of retaining variety and contrast whilst also providing the audience with a certain musical stability. The brilliance obviously lies in Janáček’s ability to match his music (continuous recitative throughout) to the natural rhythm of speech, ultimately giving his music a natural lyricism and almost innate feeling of originating from within the characters themselves. However, credit is nonetheless due to Mälkki for keeping a tight orchestra throughout the performance, full of passionate swells and cautious descents into silent trepidation, bringing the audience to the heights of passion and the depths of despair felt by those on stage.

Equally deserving is German soprano Ricarda Merbeth, whose approach to the overwhelming role of Emilia Marty merits great recognition. A hugely demanding task, Merbeth surmounted this challenge to deliver a stunning performance, filled with seduction, power, frenetic emotion and, ultimately, redemption. However, the role of Emilia draws its power equally from the relationship with the story’s principal roles, Albert Gregor (tenor Kiss B. Atilla) and Jaroslav Prus (baritone Vincent Le Texier), two men both caught in the seductive snares of the bewitching Emilia. The relationship between these three was convincing to say the least, with Albert driven to a compelling emotional insanity by Emilia’s charms, and Jaroslav’s sorrow and heartbreak upon discovering the cost of his actions as the opera comes to its ultimate climax. In addition to such a compelling performance, there was no hint of a linguistic barrier from any of the singers. Unsurprisingly, a Czech opera requires a significantly greater amount of preparation with regards to the text and its pronunciation. With this in mind, German soprano Ricarda Merbeth (and many of the cast) took a year to fully prepare for the role, an effort that has quite clearly paid off, given the utterly persuasive rendition from all the singers involved.

In the final moments of Janáček’s masterpiece, the audience is closed in by off-stage horns and a male choir, creating one final moment of sublime power as the story of Emilia Marty, and this epic production, is brought to its climactic finish.