OPERA / Case solved: Raymond Monelle on Janacek at Scottish Opera

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The Independent Culture
EMILIA MARTY, the great prima donna, is a woman who makes fools of men. But then, all women make fools of men; even Marty's little fan, Kristina Vitek, makes a fool of her boyfriend when she rejects him for the sake of her singing career. Marty's mockery, however, is on a heroic scale, for she has been at it, under various names, for 400 years.

Janacek's operas are about a boundless flowing compassion for human foolishness and suffering; and The Makropoulos Case, for all its comic focus on male absurdity, turns at last into a hymn of forgiveness for the heartless woman and her stupid victims.

The figure of Count Hauk-Sendorf, a small part, typifies Janacek's message, a human shambles in terminal decay who yet inspires pity rather than contempt. In Scottish Opera's revival of David Pountney's 1981 production, Nigel Douglas struck just the right attitude of childish senility.

In fact, Maria Bjornson's sets - all ramshackle brick walls and strewn detritus - highlighted the sense of shambles and disorder, creating a kind of post-nuclear chaos in which Emilia's unnatural life felt like an intrusion. Kathryn Harries - singing with a dramatic breadth and solidity that far exceeded the rather refined singer of previous Scottish successes - stressed the cruelty of the part, presenting an ice-cold super-bitch with only a passing nostalgia for long-past lovers. It was in many ways a personal triumph.

The other unhappy males were less convincing than Douglas's ancient count. Nigel Robson's Gregor seemed only half-sincere, while Donald Maxwell saw Baron Prus as a farcical figure, rolling his eyes and grimacing like a wicked step-father. Richard Berkeley-Steele was an aptly clownish lawyer's clerk, but his boss, Kolenaty (Stephen Bennett), did not supply real menace. As Kristina, Ann Taylor-Morley's unusually powerful soprano made her into a rather mature and weighty character, unlikely to waste time with Iain Paton's gawping Janek.

In his final appearance as the company's music director, John Mauceri paced the opera steadily and cumulatively, from threatening prelude to deliberately massive tragic conclusion; but the orchestra offered lacklustre tone and foggy attack. If the work came over as a testament of compassion and humanity, it was as much due to Mauceri's judicious control as to its sinister prima donna.

In rep, Theatre Royal, Glasgow (041-332 9000)

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