OPERA / In need of a minor tonic: Makropoulos Case, Welsh National Opera

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The Independent Culture
Was it accident or design that Welsh National Opera's contribution to Cardiff's Women In Music festival should revolve round femmes fatales: Violetta, Turandot, and now Emilia Marty in Janacek's Makropoulos Case? The traditional man-killer is not quite the Camille Paglia image of femininity. But then Janacek's 337-year-old heroine is not quite a traditional woman.

David Pountney, reviving his 1978 production, brings out new aspects of the role: the vulnerability and self-protective play-acting of Josephine Barstow's Marty are something I don't recall from earlier runs. They contradict the view that at her age she has no feelings left, and suggest instead that fear has taken over in her consuming quest for another dose of the elixir.

This is clever and, in the final scene, moving. But there are technical problems. Barstow isn't the first to have trouble riding Janacek's busy orchestration, but I was surprised by her lack of vocal projection and poor articulation. Pountney has suggested that the apparatus of Capek's plot is arbitrary and inessential. But to me this is an over-simplification. We do want to know these details, precisely because they flesh out what would otherwise seem an mere abstraction.

A pity, because in other ways it's a riveting performance. We know Barstow's genius for youth. Now her Marty reveals a genius for youth at the point of collapse, and age at various points: despair, panic, and finally serenity - and a speed of change from one to the other that is amazing and disconcerting. As an image of romanticism come to dust in the materialistic Twenties, it would be hard to beat. Janacek's genius was to express all this in music that remains passionate. But it's here that the practical problems arise.

Apart from its passion, the revival should be seen for its expertise. A strong cast helps. Donald Maxwell's Prus and Kim Begley's Gregor play up splendidly to different views of the male life form - cool and impulsive respectively - and theirs is also the strongest singing. But Catrin Wyn Davies reveals, as Kristina, a voice which makes her Susanna next spring something to look forward to. Andrew Shore presents a sharp, lucid Kolenaty; and Nigel Douglas repeats his marvellous vignette of mad Hauk.

David Robertson's conducting is impressive, particularly in its pacing and its attention to detail. Janacek's scoring is, after all, strange, but the sounds fit the sense and Robertson makes no bones about them. This does sometimes cause the singers trouble, and perhaps a little more care with balance would strengthen the revival.

WNO: for tour details call 0222 464666

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