The Makropulos Affair’: Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome ★★★★

Janáček’s opera is a heady brew, its plot feeling like a mixture of Dickens, and Wilkie Collins plus Rider Haggard’s ageless femme fatale ‘She’. While Janáček’s operatic Prelude plays, Sam Sharples’ monochrome video’s suggestively sinister close-ups, unfurling documents and multiple signatures signals that the “Affair” of the title is a legal one. Nicola Turner’s imaginative design for the solicitor Vitek’s office has the characters dwarfed by papers impaled on 20ft high spikes, the legacy of a case that has lasted longer than Jarndyce v Jarndyce in ‘Bleak House’. The mystery is why should operatic prima donna Emilia Marty be interested in the inheritance dispute between young Albert Gregor and moustache-twirling aristocrat Baron Prus?

It’s 1922 and Marty is a black-clad vamp toying with lovesick Gregor – to whom she refers by the emasculating diminutive of ‘Bertie’ – using her erotic power on him, as she will later use it on the Baron, to get hold of a document which contains the formula for the elixir of eternal life which Marty – really Elina Makropulos – unwittingly and unwillingly imbibed. She’s now 337-years-old and urgently needs a top-up. No wonder she can’t take Bertie seriously – “I’m your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother,” she later laughingly reveals. Marty is a great role for dramatic soprano and Ángeles Blancas Gulín’s performance is a tour-de-force, visceral and, when required by director Olivia Fuchs, grossly physical. She dons outrageous wigs, flaunts, capers – her turn as her earlier incarnation Eugenia Montez is a terrific send up of ‘Carmen’ – and gains tragic dignity when she she scorns immortality and chooses death.

It’s a team performance with every cast member nailing their role and all ably sung. Tenor Nicky Spence combines vocal ardour with a likeable chubby innocence; David Stout (Baron Prus) reveals dignity behind the unctuous surface; Harriet Eyley is a winning, and beautifully sung, ingenue Krista; Mark Le Brocq (Vitek) assured and funny, especially in his breaking-the fourth-wall address to the audience on the plot’s complexity. Janáček’s score – violent, sensuous, with minatory brass, ominous percussion and seductive strings – is played expertly by the WNO orchestra under Janáček specialist Tomáš Hanus. He was alert to the music’s sweep but also tiny details like Janáček’s quick quote from his ‘Sinfonietta’ and the allusion to Brunnhilde’s magic fire music when Emilia describes her potion-induced death-sleep.

Norman Stinchcombe

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