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12 October, 2008

Janacek’s Makropulos revisited in Sydney.

The Makropulos Secret - Sydney Opera House Tuesday 7th October 2008

As Emilia Marty, Cheryl Barker shone in this stellar performance of Janacek’s second last opera. The company’s longest serving soloist, John Pringle was splendid as Prus in his final role before retirement from the company. He showed once again how his professionalism can carve out a complex character in opera. English tenor Peter Wedd had the vocal and dramatic goods for Gregor. I was a little surprised that he was chosen over a local artist, although good tenors are always in short supply. The supporting singers were also all excellent, opening with Kanan Breen as the legal librarian, Vitek. Almost up-staging everyone was Robert Gard as Hauk. Rather like Elena Obratsova in a wheel chair, he was a perfectly credible senior citizen: audible, geriatric and pathetic. One might say ‘beyond Falstaff’.

Richard Hickox was in his element and the Opera and Ballet Orchestra did a fine job with this singular score. They received a thunderous ovation.

The curtain first went up on this Prague thriller in 1926. Whether unconsciously or not, Janacek seems to have taken many strains, orchestrations and rhythms from Fanciulla del West which premiered in 1910. Most 20th century composers were influenced by Puccini in some way … and yet Makropulos Secret (or “Case” or “Affair”) is no ‘copy-cat’ work.

During act one of the performance all the stage lighting suddenly blacked out while the principals’ spotlights continued to shine for their duet. After struggling on for several bars, Richard Hickox gestured for the orchestra to stop, turned to the audience and said something like “well, stumped by electricity” in his strong English accent. At that very moment, the stage lights came back on. He turned back several pages, as in a rehearsal, announced a particular suitable bar number, then starting only when the characters had resumed the earlier positions on the stage. It was edifying to see company members coping in such unusual and unpredictable circumstances. By coincidence I had said to a friend before going in that something extraordinary often happens in this opera - once a singer even died on stage in a Met performance.

The story could only exist in opera or a religious text, yet it is a foil for a marvellous unfolding ‘who-done-it’ drama based between an immortal diva and a long standing inheritance dispute along the lines of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Armfield’s production and Oberle’s settings are so stylish that one wonders why the company let it all languish in the basement for 12 years. And while I am not a Janacek fan, his operas have always been quite popular in Sydney, notably Jenufa of which we have had three productions in living memory.

The opening night house was heavily ‘papered’ with lots of company members, family, friends and hangers-on seen in good seats. I made a point of sitting in the back row of the circle (completely alone, of course) for one act to take in the least favourable acoustic in the hall. It was surprisingly good as every note and word could be clearly heard, thanks partly to excellent diction of the singers.

Like the Billy Budd season, the high quality of the work should promise better houses and there are many Janacek fans who should not miss this outing. I heard that last week the Britten was almost a sell-out.

It is a great shame that the management has still not responded productively to the current severe and widespread media criticism. Much of the ‘commentary’ could be put to rest by a few phone-calls, yet digging in and denying any shortcomings is not a wise strategy, especially when lives and careers of vital Australian artists are involved, not to mention the quality of opera performances. An impresario needs to be like the curator of a museum … yet we are dealing with live exhibits here. Artists, like management, can be difficult and egotistical. But the public deserves better and communication is the name of the game. Let’s hope that reason shines through and people manage to swallow their pride and return to the armistice lines before the ‘war’ started. And a ‘sorry’ here and there would not go astray I believe.

We hope that the new season of La Boheme is a great success and that returned Australian-born Italian tenor Carlo Barricelli makes a classy Rodolfo. The company has already made unusual demands by providing only one ‘lay day’ between most performances. But the show must go on! Season starts Tuesday 14th October

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

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