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Sunday, 11 November 2012

Opera North's The Makropulos Case at The Lowry: Guest Blogger is Smitten, and Wants to Bounce on her OWN Bed

Now, I know what you're thinking, and it goes a little something like this: "Well - that WAS an enjoyable and informative blog post on Opera North's current productions of Faust and Don Giovanni - I feel it was was entertaining AND useful - infotainment, if you will. However, I believed Opera North to be touring THREE shows this season - what of The Makropulos Case? And, more importantly, who will go out of Strictly tonight?"

Well, as it happens I can answer BOTH of those questions for you, but in the interests of leaving your viewing pleasure unbesmirched I will concentrate solely on the former - here's lovely guest blogger Nicole to tell us more...

Now, as an opera virgin, I'm not afraid to admit that I did have some pre-conceptions. Firstly, that all operas are highbrow, frequented by people who know the plot, and the songs (yes, I know that's not the technical term) intimately. In my mind, there is also a strict dress code - diamond drop earrings, glittering floor-length gown and expensive fur definitely NOT optional. Cue frenetic fretting about what to wear, curbed only when Liz tells me, "dress smartly, but not too glamorously, as the man next to me was wearing an actual anorak!" As a firm believer that there is no outfit that cannot be tarted up with a shiny blazer, a pair of vertiginous heels, and slick of red lipstick, I slid into a taxi (the tram being, in my mind, wholly unsuitable for such an important event in my life) and made my way to The Lowry for my first ever opera experience - Opera North's production of The Makropulos Case.

His penultimate opera, The Makropulos Case is one of Janacek's lesser known works - an adaptation of Karel Capek's play of the same name, written in the 1920s. At the heart of The Makropulos Case is the long-hoped-for resolution of the Gregor vs. Prus case, a legal battle over an unclaimed estate that has dragged on for over a century, and dragged many generations of both families into destitution and death. Albert Gregor ('Bertie' - played with complete conviction by Paul Nilon) is on tenterhooks waiting to hear the outcome of the latest legal brawl, when the "dazzling, seductive and fascinating" soprano Emilia Marty (the captivating Ylva Kihlberg) arrives at his lawyer's office with some surprisingly accurate knowledge of the case, and some mysteries of her own. Bertie promptly falls in love with Miss Marty, and so begins the drama. Although essentially a dramatic comedy, The Makropulos Case presents some real food-for-thought: if you could live forever, would you really want to if it meant living without love? And can we ever truly appreciate life unless we accept that at some point, we will die?

Opera North have set their production in the same decade, and the set design and costumes are suitably 'roaring', particularly Miss Marty's shimmering dress coat, which I briefly considered snaffling, as it is entirely suitable attire for my next girls' Sparkle Night. The staging was particularly inventive, with the detailed hustle and bustle of a lawyer's office in Act 1 convincingly portrayed through stacked shelves and desks in varying states of disarray. Act 2 takes place backstage following Marty's latest performance, giving the cast the opportunity to have fun and allow the audience in on a few backstage secrets, with a knowing wink. The final act brings the story to its riveting climax in Marty's hotel room, where the bed in the middle of the stage, resplendent with diaphanous curtain, becomes the focus, despite the huddle of armchairs stage right (well, I am practically an expert now) that remains throughout the acts, serving as a waiting area, a stack of disused furniture, and a lounge area respectively.

Admittedly, the first 15 minutes of the opera were, for me, a rather unsettling experience. Having been led to believe that opera consists of a series of sung pieces hinged on a gravely serious plot, it was a surprise when the characters began to sing their lines to each other. Coupled with the fact that The Makropulos Case is a comedy, as an opera novice, I felt in a state of cognitive dissonance - was I to laugh, or nod soberly? As soon as I realised laughter was acceptable, nay, expected (especially with such pithy quips as "Do you want to spit in my face?" "No, I want to spit in my own!"), I got into the groove. I found myself unable to take my eyes off Kihlberg, and began to fancy myself as an Emilia Marty figure: beguiling, jet-setting, jaded. Well, I was wearing red lipstick...My companion and I both agreed that Act 3 was most enjoyable, due almost entirely to Kihlberg's mesmerizing portrayal of Marty's self-destruction - as she bounced on the bed with reckless abandon whilst swigging from a bottle of wine, we exchanged a glance of recognition, mentally singing along to our own internal soundtrack *aaaall byyyyy myyseeellf...* Unfortunately, this was the only song to run through my head following the performance as the production did not include any sung pieces, which I was a little disappointed by. Despite this, the orchestral accompaniment was aurally luminous, and the ovation for conductor Richard Farnes justly deserved.

Back to my pre-opera pre-conceptions. I can honestly say that Opera North made my first experience a very positive one. The Makropulos Case is accessible for opera newbies as it is sung in English, and for those who can't quite discern the dialogue, the subtitles are helpfully displayed on large, easily-visible screens to the side of the stage (however, if like me, you find yourself needing to continually refer to the subtitles to be sure you are following the complexities of the plot, it can be distracting). With all first-timers, I must reflect on what I have learnt from my experience: 1. Opera can be funny. 2. Not all operas contain arias (yes, I have now learnt the technical term) 3. You don't have to be glam, but of course it helps if you identify with the main character...! My companion - also new to the opera - summed up her experience of The Makropulos Case as being "like a musical version of Death Becomes Her - but in a very good way". And in the taxi home, we found ourselves deeply engaged in a discussion about the relevance of Heidegger's 'Seine zum Ende' (a being towards death) - his idea that until we accept that death is not just a possibility, we will never fully 'live' our lives. Now who would have thought my first experience of opera would have provoked a discussion of 20th century German existential philosophy? Certainly not I, but I would certainly go again.

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