DVD Review: Leos Janácek’s music at its most visceral in Salzburg Makropulos Case


A scene from the 2011 Salzburg Festival production of Leos Janácek’s Makropulos Case.

I can’t help thinking that Claudio Monteverdi would smile at the operatic accomplishments of Leos Janácek.

Monteverdi and his peers worked hard at developing a new form of drama that would enhance the meaning of the text with music. That heightened form of theatre became known as opera, which continues to thrive as its creative pendulum swings to musical excess and then back to an ascetic focus on the libretto.

Nearly three centuries after the Venetian wonders of Monteverdi, along came the Czech composer and his peers, eliminating the alternation between monologue and aria, putting the focus back on a seamless flow of narrative.

The musical means the Moderns used were as diverse as their backgrounds. Many fans of 20th century opera would agree that Janácek’s unique musical language is one of the most evocative — especially in his 1926 opera, Vec Makropulos (The Makropulos Case).

A new, visually adventurous production from last year’s Salzburg Festival — supported by the Vienna Philharmonic and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen — makes a particularly fine case for Janácek’s roiling, repetitive, tonally slippery score.

The score gets right into the heart and bones and sinews, aided by wonderful singing and excellent audio.

Soprano Angela Denoke is spectacular as Emilia Marty (née Makropulos). The rest of the cast leaves nothing to be desired.

Christoph Martaler’s new production is a matter of taste, as it divides the stage into discrete zones evoking the recent past, the present, the future and the lens of the observer. The problem with viewing a production like this at home is that Martaler’s lens is further filtered by the video director, providing a much narrower point of view than Martaler probably intended.

But the visual frustrations are more than made up for by what we hear.

Janácek adapted his three-act libretto from a comedy by Karl Capek. But while the text preserves the original satire of human greed and bickering, the score is dark and angry.

The composer was in his 60s when he began work on the opera, which had its premiere in Brnö in 1926, two years before the his death. He was in love with a much younger woman, Kamila Stösslová, no doubt making him doubly aware of his mortality.

The opera sounds like a manifestation of Janácek’s personal struggle with mortality and a wish to stay alive much longer. He knows that a longer life would be a bad thing, but can’t completely give up on the idea.

The plot itself is about an opera singer, Emilia Marty, who gets embroiled in a 100-year-long lawsuit over an inheritance. As the case proceeds, we slowly discover that Marty has been alive for more than 300 years, living under a series of different names, and assembling an impressive collection of past lovers.

Martaler’s biggest intervention is shifting the visual focus from social comedy and satire to a meditation on the misguided yet inextinguishable desire so many mortals have for eternal life. It’s a clear case of a director wanting to triple underline something that the audience can easily figure out for itself.

For more details on the DVD, click here.

Here is Martaler’s strange Prologue as well as Janácek’s Act I, to give you an idea of where this production’s strengths lie:

John Terauds

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