Lehnhoff's wonderful production

Opera; Makropulos Case: Glyndebourne

When you're 34 going on 337, time passes slowly. So slowly, it's no longer perceptible. You know what they say about a watched kettle. Well, that's how it is for Emilia Marty, opera's most extraordinary heroine. Her soul has died, but life goes on - without end, without direction, without meaning. Just imagine it. Leos Janacek did. With The Cunning Little Vixen he had affirmed, celebrated, the renewal of life. With his penultimate opera, The Makropulos Case, he took us one step further: the nature of mortality, the idea that life is only precious when it is finite. We need to see the sands of time running out.

And in Nikolaus Lehnhoff's wonderful new production at Glyndebourne, we do - literally. Even before Janacek's explosive prelude hurtles us at breakneck speed into the comedy of life, Lehnhoff has us watching the kettle that never boils, the paint that never dries. The cutting edge of Tobias Hoheisel's striking set is a tall hour-glass, and from that axis it sweeps around - the curve of life. The years are piled up before our eyes in mountains of paper, documentation, public record. Across the stage are laid symbols: a statue of the grim reaper, the luggage of life's journey. But it's only as the action begins to unfold, that we perceive these symbols to be moving - so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. And it's unsettling. A red curtain is drawn slowly across the curve of the set, across the paper-work, the history: it's happening, and yet it seems not to be.

Is this life as Emilia Marty experiences it? Changing and yet unchanging, progressive and yet infinite. Lehnhoff taps so brilliantly into the striking contradictions inherent in both music and drama - not least, the sense of our heroine as a still, lonely figure amid all the madness, the intrigue, the frantic business of life. Anja Silja's Emilia, first seen behind a newspaper, a sexually ambiguous figure in an elegantly tailored trouser- suit, fedora and dark glasses, moves slowly, impassively through it all.

Silja, whose own career shares something of Emilia Marty's longevity (35 years ago she was a Bayreuth star at 20), is marvellous. Through the impassivity, the cold indifference, you see her pain, her weariness. When she's not being watched, she visibly wilts inside. And then the follow- spot hits her, and Marty, the performer, the beautiful and mysterious singer, comes alive. For her breathtaking entrance in Act 2, she is the exotic bird of paradise (Hoheisel's costumes are stunning). Reliving her Andalusian love affair with the dotty Count Hauk-Sendorf (a spirited Nigel Douglas), she demands the spotlight again. She lives only in the past. The future is meaningless. And when she finally resolves to tell her story, she does so done-up like a latterday biker-cum-Marlene Dietrich storm-trooper, her tongue loosened by alcohol. It's like Lehnhoff and Hoheisel are showing us her future, and it's ugly.

Vocally, Silja is living on the edge now. But she uses that edge, that desperation to quite searing effect. She is surrounded by a terrific supporting cast - Victor Braun's Baron Prus and Kim Begley's Albert Gregor outstanding among a gallery of sharply etched characters - while in the pit Andrew Davis and the London Philharmonic push the impassioned instability of this most volatile of scores to its limits.

Janacek's grandest and most heartfelt music attends his heroine in her moment of release, and as it does so, reams of music cascade from an upturned piano hanging precariously above. The singer has sung, but her song lingers on. Unmissable.

n In rep to 24 Aug (Booking: 01273 813813)

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