Edgar Allan Poe, that sad, crazy potato and possibly our greatest writer (together with Twain, that other nut Pound, and a couple others) taught us that there is no aestethic experience more powerful, for a reader, than being able to read a story from beginning to end in just one sitting.
(That's why he was such a firm believer in the power of short stories). Some works of musical theater, just like literature, are for their very nature best experienced in one sitting, straight up, no interruptions, no intervals, no time for overpriced drinks in the Ridotto (and no bathroom breaks, a possible issue in classical music with its increasingly aging audience).
The Makropulos Affair is one of those works that should really be staged without pause, not to dilute its subtle, creepy power. As the key theme to The Makropulos Affair, the conundrum of immortality is truly a mixed blessing. After last night's premiere of Leoš Janácek's three-act opera at Teatro alla Scala, despite the creamy music, gorgeous direction/sets, and stellar singing, we honestly felt like the old/restyled-as-new Luca Ronconi staging tested our own immortality and our resolve to keep things simpler, sparing continuity for big ideas and even bigger sets.
The Makropulos Affair is Janácek's stabby stab at turning Karel Capek's 1922 play into opera (where after he had seen the play in Prague in 1922, he started communicating with Capek to gain rights and artistic guidance), complete with libretto (penned by the maestro between 1923 - 1925) continuing on the everlasting argument of immortality.
La Scala, in a season that looks increasingly harsh financially, took a big gamble on this production of Ronconi (originally at Teatro Regio di Torino), and the novelty of Janácek's lesser-performed operas -- compared to Kát'a Kabanová and Jenůfa -- coupled with tragically, anti-2009-worldwide-recession sky-high ticket prices, the orchestra seats and four tiers of private boxes were noticeably half-empty, with rows and rows of seats unoccupied. Of course, the loyal loggionisti showed up, and both upper gallerie were packed. Scala -- whose General Manager Stephane Lissner unwisely chose this recession year to increase across-the-boall prices by a whopping 10% -- had actually offered only 24-hours prior, on their Facebook page, reduced-fare tickets for the under 26-year-old crowd (knocking 30 euro gallerie seats down to just 10 euro). With such short notice, the under 26-year-old crowd smartly remained out at the clubs and bars. All the better, as the immortal theme of Makropulos doesn't really register for those who aren't faced with such somatic concerns like aging and death.
Musically, last night was infinitely superior to the singing. Conducting was brainy Marko Letonja, permanent conductor of the Slovenska Filharmonija, under the managerial & artistic advisement of Emmanuel Villaume. Letonja led the Scala orchestra with richly spun phrasings, full of the most elegant surprises. The entire orchestra glided and converged into a supple, creamy goodness of sound. Even when Janácek's composition called for dissonance, the feeling was unblemished and flawless, and Letonja was able to weave distinct harmonies amid the chaos. The music drove the entire production, soared above Ronconi's excellent direction, and was integral to the overall success of the evening.
The star power between Ronconi's direction and Margherita Palli's sets melded perfectly. The unsettling and disquieting life of the main character, Elina Makropulos (Eugenia Montez/Ekaterina Myshkin/Elian McGregor), was reflected in Palli's sets, which consisted entirely of collapsing spaces. Sets were were branded with steeply tilted runners, ramps that zig-zagged from the top of the stage to the bottom, and one wondered how the singers were able to keep their footing on such surreal, funhouse-like expanses.
For Act I's Kolenatý Prague law office we saw claustrophobic, falling-in-on-itself bookshelves looked like haphazard gravestones at a neglected cemetery. Act II similarly featured a dizzying staircase of opera theater chairs, stacked and menacing in the background. The sets created a tangible sense of falling over and collapsing, which could have been nightmarish and surreal without the anchor of realistic and well-made props. We appreciated the metaphor, and also applauded the solid, grounded ideas. Costumes by Carlo Diappi were more generic, not necessarily tied to the early 1900s, but more a wash of the first half of the 20th centuary.
Angela Denoke's lead of Emilia Marty was sung brilliantly, and convincing as the ageless seductress, slinking across the stage and grounded when the libretto called for it. Nor did we find anything to lament about the male leads: Miro Dvorsky's Albert Gregor, David Kuebler's Vítek, and Mark Steven Doss's Prus. Honorable mentions go to Jolana Fogas's Kristina, Eric Stoklossa's Janek, and Alan Opie's Dr Kolenatý, to which the audience rightfully praised during curtain call.
However, the problem for us was that despite Ronconi's spot-on ideas and direction, wonderful cast, and unbeatable sound, the long interruptions disjointed the lyric narrative. From the normal playtime of 90 minutes, the opera became an almost 3-hour spectacle. At one point halfway into intermission #2, O.C. felt like she had drunken the immortality serum and had been sitting in the Piermarini for those 337 years.