Without a doubt, the BBC Prom performance on 19 August 2016 of janacek’s extraordinary opera The Makropulos Affair was a complete triumph, one of those evening when everything simply goes right. Based on a fantastical play by Karel Capek, the music by Janacek is so responsive to the text that it matches the dramatic development of the story and builds to the climactic revelation of the true identity and story of Emilia Marty in ways that almost require a full staging to make complete sense.
And yet, in this concert, with wonderful casting and a conductor who knows this score intimately, the evening was a blazing success. In concert performance like this it was possible to revel in the orchestrations and enjoy every nuance of the brilliantly apt music. The evening confirmed what a lyrical score Janacek has created for this tale. The Czech cast conveyed their characters and emotions strongly throughout and were both musically and dramatically convincing at all times.
Though it was possible to buy a libretto in the programme to follow the important dialogues and conversations of the story, sticking too closely to reading the words meant missing being able to watch closely the highly polished work of both the singers and the orchestra, so it was a conflict between following the words or the musical events at times. Both aspects of the opera are unusually rich and demanding of complete attention. So I found myself wishing that the Proms would solve the problem of having sur-titles of some sort for their operatic performances. But the two stars of the evening were undoubtedly the conductor – or their song cycles or choral works for that matter,
But the top stars of the evening were Jiri Belohlavek, conducting the BBC Singers (the praiseworthy men’s voices under chorus-master Nicholas Chalmers)) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra that he has worked with so closely in the past; and, of course, the radiant and utterly compelling Karita Mattila as the glamorous, puzzling and unfathomably mysterious opera diva Emilia Marty. Like Emilia Marty, she seems not to have aged; and even in the first act, where she is terse and cold when she suddenly arrives, the mysterious diva, she conveyed a magnificent and fascinating character of great allure and power. In the wonderful third act, vocally and dramatically she conveyed the strains and anguish of her lot as well as the almost radiant release that she discovers. Janacek’s music brilliantly matches the development of the play and shifts with the various revelations and discoveries until it builds to the astonishing climax.
As in the play, you are not supposed to know the Makropulos secret until near the very end and I do wish that people would stop telling that ending as part of their reviews. I sat next to some people who had never seen the opera before and who were fascinated to learn the truth behind the mystery when they were supposed to! They also did not speak Czech but said it did not matter to them at all. With a little help from the libretto in the program, they could still feel the drama of the various characters, and they found the actual music all the more wonderful for being able to watch the orchestra and not have it hidden away in a pit.
Capek, by the way, thought of the play as a comedy in the generic sense; and he wrote it as a reply to George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah to argue against the point of that play that excessive longevity or immortality are a very bad idea and that mortality is what makes us human. This is a great opera! And the BBC Proms have done it proud.