The curtain rises so slowly on Christopher Alden's brilliant new production of Janacek's The Makropulos Case that it's almost imperceptible. But the music - in wilful contradiction - is impulsive and lustful, an irresistible life-force.
But life is only meaningful when it is finite - and Elina Makropulos, who has taken an elixir of eternal life, comes to know the torment of that truth. Charles Edwards' gaunt, institutionalised set is all grey steel and cold strip-lighting. A ghostly pallor afflicts the entire cast, who move like the living dead around our heroine's latest incarnation, the opera star Emilia Marty (the terrific Cheryl Barker).
When Marty seduces Baron Prus (the charismatic John Wegner), the post-coital image is of her laid out like a corpse. Somehow, Alden has managed to blur the threshold between life and death. As Marty herself says: "In the end it's the same, singing and silence."
Barker deploys both to chilling effect. She is sexy and petulant, brash and self-obsessed; she conveys well the sense that merely living has become a drug for her. And in the overwhelming denouement where she finally reveals her terrible secret, the voice opens thrillingly to embrace just one more time her three centuries of life and youth.
It's a cracking performance that's buoyed up by an effusive, passionate score. Myriad emotional states shift in and out of focus as enthrallingly as the harmony. But most of all - and herein lies the great paradox - it's a score about the acceptance of death that explodes with life. Sir Charles Mackerras and the ENO orchestra bravely dug deep to reveal all its secrets. Happily their efforts were being recorded live for future commercial release.
In the final scene, Alden plays a brilliant clincher. Clutching the document containing the elixir's once jealously guarded formula, Emilia cannot now even give it away. Nobody wants it. And nor will her fingers let it go. That would be letting life go and, much as she now wants to, her body resists. In a desperate dance of death she finally shakes off the accursed piece of paper. And finally succumbs.
You will, too.
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