Janácek (The) Makropulos Case

Mackerras returns to a masterpiece and, in English, it's another triumph

Author: 
Edward Greenfield

Janácek (The) Makropulos Case

  • (The) Makropulos Affair

For his late operas, Janácek chose subjects no other composer would have imagined as viable as an opera, yet each time a masterpiece resulted. For this one Janácek turned to a story by fellow Czech Karel Capek about a woman who, thanks to a potion, has been kept alive for more than two centuries. Yet where Capek treats his central character as a cold, cynical creature, Janácek makes her warmer and more sympathetic. That reflects, so Sir Charles Mackerras suggests in an interview on Disc 2, the composer’s frustrations over his love for his muse, Kamila Stösslová.

This is Mackerras’s second recording. The first, in 1979, in his series of groundbreaking Janácek recordings for Decca, had the Vienna Philharmonic in radiant form accompanied a fine cast singing in Czech. It says much for the quality of the ENO Orchestra that for this new version in English the playing is equally polished, and often outshines that of the Viennese in its extra dramatic bite.

The recording brings an advantage, too – not as plushy as the Viennese version and with extra separation and clarity in a clearly focused acoustic. Those qualities suit the music better, which, as Sir Charles points out, is “a different kind of music”: Janácek emphatically did not want to sound like Strauss or Puccini. That extra clarity and separation means the words are astonishingly clear.

Cheryl Barker rivals Elisabeth Söderström on Decca in dramatic bite and when in Act 3 Emilia is at last given a sustained solo, Barker is even more powerful, aptly abrasive and less moulded. Though the American Robert Brubaker cannot quite match Peter Dvorsky on Decca, it is a focused, compelling performance. In some of the smaller roles the Czech singers had an advantage but their counterparts here run them close. On any count both versions have one marvelling at the score’s emotional thrust and dramatic compulsion, original in every way and one of Janácek’s supreme masterpieces.

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