Classical Music Silja the great

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The Independent Culture
AT AROUND the age of 70, when he was qualified to know about such things, Leos Janacek wrote two operas that make the point that life derives meaning from the nearness of death. The Cunning Little Vixen celebrated the cycle of nature, constantly renewing itself as one generation succeeds the next. And The Makropulos Case considered what happens when there is no renewal: when the life of a woman is alchemically prolonged for 300 years, to the point where nothing and no one matters any more. In Elina Makropulos (alias Emilia Marty) Janacek created one of the most fascinating anti-heroines of the modern lyric stage: an ice queen, something between Lulu, Turandot, and Don Giovanni in a skirt, whose glamorous indifference subsides into pathos during the final minutes of the piece as she renounces the misery of everlasting life and dies. The role demands the sort of presence - vocal, physical, dramatic - that can hold an audience captive with a glance. And for good reason there have been few outstanding Emilias in the 30 years that the opera has been known outside Czechoslovakia. On disc the prime exponent was Elisabeth Soderstrom. More recently, on stage, the star Emilia has been Anja Silja, who leads the new Makropulos Case at Glyndebourne. She gives one of the most electrifying performances I've ever witnessed: a true landmark performance where the chemistry of music, role and singer works beyond the boundaries of reason.

Silja has turned 60 and been singing for 40 years, with heavy Wagner roles during her early twenties that by rights should have destroyed the voice. They didn't; and although her tone is less than lovely in its glacial whiteness, there's a sleek liquidity that scales the peaks and troughs of an expansive register, an absolute integrity, and mesmerising theatre. As befits a triple centenarian, she transcends age. In the last scene, when the dam of gathered tension bursts and lyricism floods an otherwise largely declamatory score, she simply quits the realm of time. Young girl, old woman, who knows what she is? But it's precisely judged and awesomely delivered.

Performances of this quality, though, don't exist in isolation, and Silja's is framed by a staging of surreptitious genius: the latest in Glyndebourne's inspired Janacek series put together by the team of Nikolaus Lehnhoff (director), Tobias Hoheisel (design) and Andrew Davis (conductor). The theme is time itself, unnoticed but forever pressing forward; and the set moves like a timepiece - constantly but imperceptibly, so that you only register the consequences, not the actuality of movement. The impedimenta of Emilia's life slip gradually across the stage. And the piece de resistance is an upside-down Rebecca Horn piano hanging from the fly and travelling very slowly downstage through the opera's whole duration. You spend two acts wondering what it's doing there; and then, as Emilia relinquishes her claim on immortality in Act III, sheet music cascades down from the piano case. I'm not sure what it means - perhaps Emilia's soul (she's meant to be a singer) liberated after such a long, artful containment? - but it makes a striking image.

With a first-rate cast, from Kim Begley's ardent Gregor to Menai Davies's cute cameo as the Cleaner, and strong if sometimes overloaded playing from the LPO, this new Makropulos is an impressive team achievement. But the night still, indisputably, belongs to Silja. I wonder how much longer she'll be able to deliver roles like this; but to catch her in this Indian summer of her singing life is an experience. See it, cherish it, and tell your grandchildren.

Glyndebourne's country cousin, Garsington, has nothing like her, and little to commend its Cenerentola (deeply uninspired) or Der Schauspieldirektor (best moment: when a dog strayed onto the open-air stage, gave the tenor lead a long, contemptuous look, and walked off). But at least Schauspieldirektor is short, and it formed part of a double bill that materially improved after the interval with Strauss's Daphne - a piece rarely staged on account of its awkward length (long for a half night, short for a whole one) and troubling scenic requirement (the heroine turns into a tree). It also throws up vocal challenges: for a particularly deep contralto, a serious heldentenor, and a bright, high-reaching soprano in the title role. But Garsington had all these things in (respectively) Rebecca de Pont Davies, Jeffrey Lawton and Juanita Lascarro (a young Colombian soprano of promise). And though the set David Fielding designed for his own production was cardboard-cheap and badly lit, it had a chic solution to the lady-into- tree problem.

Covent Garden's Verdi Festival trundled on this week with a production of I Due Foscari that you shouldn't rush to, except for the experience of an early rarity unseen at Covent Garden for 100 years. A shapeless narrative, it's effectively one long farewell as the tenor - son of the Doge of Venice - edges aria by aria towards a prison sentence for something he hasn't done; and it relies on forceful staging with fine voices to have any impact. Scottish Opera's production for the Edinburgh Festival two years ago got half-way there. But this German import, directed by August Everding, is barely under starter's orders: conventionally dull and poorly sung. Dennis O'Neill is the tenor, authentically Italianate but zero-rated for charisma; June Anderson seems to have lost the Sutherlandesque brilliance of her early years and sounds painfully raw; while Vladimir Chernov's Doge is solidly sincere but grey. A cinquecento Mr Major. That Daniele Gatti is a strong Verdi conductor is a blessing, but the only one.

The Aldeburgh Festival ended last Sunday with an averagely all right ECO concert and a respect- able but, given the competition this year, unremarkable Purcell Fairy Queen under Jane Glover. But these were soft- sell items. Box office. And behind them the heart of the festival was beating healthily enough with a substantial commission from the elder statesman of American composers, Elliott Carter, and a portrait concert devoted to the young and suddenly ubiquitous Tom Ades. The Carter was a song-cycle, Of Challenge and of Love, for soprano (Lucy Shelton) and string quartet (the Brindisi), which had less to say than some of Carter's supremely eloquent song settings of the past - though heaven knows, it was an achievement for Aldeburgh to get such a big piece from him at this stage of his life. The Ades concert was ingeniously programmed - a journey in music from, and back to, his recent mixed-ensemble score, The Origin of the Harp - and exactly the kind of event that underwrites Aldeburgh's future. As its local audience grows older, more conservative and less curious, the festival is under pressure to forget its raison d'etre as a platform for the new. It must stand firm.

'The Makropulos Case': Glyndebourne, 0127 381 3813, continues Wed & Sat; 'I Due Foscari': ROH, WC1, 0171 304 4000, continues Mon & Wed.