Skip to main content
Photo by Don McMurdo

The Makropulos Secret

Opera Australia presents THE MAKROPULOS SECRET. An Opera in three acts by Leos Janacek. Libretto by the composer, after Karel Capek’s comedy (1922).The Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House.

Makropulos. Greek. Secrets. Crete. “Vanitas… ashes and dust.” Lawyers. Intestate will. Prima Donna. Opera. Magic. Madness. Suicide. Sex. Beauty. Potion. Hieronymous!!! (What an excitingly thrilling name.) Eternal life. Mystery. Words that to me conjure melodrama. These were the promise of an exciting and intriguing night in the theatre and they all appear in THE MAKRPULOS SECRET by Janacek.

I had never seen this Opera before. I went to a Dress rehearsal on Saturday and was so moved, excited that I went again on Opening night. This is a revival of Neil Armfield’s 1996 production. The Design is by Carl Friedrich Oberle. The Lighting Design by Nigel Levings. The Conductor is Richard Hickox. This artistic team are in great inspiration for this work. All the areas of Design and Direction are elegant, unfussy, clean and clear in their intention and execution.

The Set design, a large, raked, wooden floor surrounded by off white, cream walls that are scaled upwards into the theatre flys .The lower third clean rendering; the middle third scratched and scraped; the upper third once again clean, arcing upstage from the left hand side (with an entrance passage), across the stage into the wings on the opposite side. The other wall on our right, a severe curve of clean rendering which on curtain rise in the Overture has a large roman numeral clock projected onto it in a spinning fashion (it later comes to rest as the action begins.) Down the right hand proscenium a chalk board with patterns of chalked numerals. This design serves as the basic space for all three acts and three locations: The office of the lawyer Dr Kolenaty; (A beautifully sculpted human tableau of waiting customers.) On the stage of a theatre, post performance; In a hotel suite. The changes are served economically and beautifully with furniture and prop changes. This Design has the same clarity and genius that the Opera Australia have received from Mr Oberle in other work that was given with Goran Jarvefelt in their Mozart explorations in time past. It is clean and along with the lighting “refreshing” and stimulating to the eye and to the subsequent feeling for the production. One never tires of the look. The Costume Design is similarly simple but perfect in its details of communication.

This is a simple but immaculately conceived production by Neil Armfield. It is so clear in its storytelling. It is serious, funny, expressionistic, fantastic and many other moods when it needs to be and serves every moment compellingly. Could there be a better result?

The performances dramatically are confident, clear and incisive. From a kind of naturalism to an expressionistic melodrama of the kind opera theatrics can embrace with brio and daring. The work of Cheryl Barker as the central figure of Emilia Marty is outstanding. The control, poise wit and sense of drama is masterfully embodied. The singing, in my humble layman’s experience, is superlative the control, of what I understand to be a very difficult role, the stamina and power never falters. The intelligence of the creation of character supports all the musical demands. The agonising weary journey of Emilia Marty is brilliantly given.

All of the artists, in fact are exceptional in their work: Kaneen Breen. Catherine Carby. Peter Wedd. Andrew Collis. John Pringle. Jacqueline Dark. Shane Lowrency. Andrew Goodwin. Robert Gard. Domincia Matthews. Dinah Shearing. It is all of the cast that I have listed and it is a signal as to the detailed preparation that Mr Armfield has given his company. It is good acting .Special mention must be made of Robert Gard and John Pringle. Both these artists have had a long history with the company. In my experience of them over a very long time I have always regarded them as being wonderful singer /actors. Mr Gard is startling always with his sense of detail to character. Observe here ,his wonderful second act creation of the old roué Hauk-Sendorf. The detail of him carefully brushing his character’s “comb over” when approaching his “love” is exquisite in its communication. His sheer pleasure in just simply being able to perform is worth the price of your ticket. John Pringle brings to Jaroslav Prus elegance, dignity and expression of personal guilt and tragedy with simple economy. As always. (note also the presence of Dinah Shearing as Emilia Marty Incarnate at the end of the opera. Ms Shearing is one of the legendary contributors to the Australian Theatre . Her Performance in LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT long cherished, along with much else. Ms Shearing’s contribution has all the anguish and human weariness embodied simply and movingly.)

This work uses the Karel Capek, comedy (1922) as the basis for the libretto . (Capek’s most famous play is THE INSECT PLAY.) The Opera deals with the possibility of the creation of a potion that enables humans to live forever. (How fascinating to recall only to two weeks ago, an interview on the Andrew Denton, ENOUGH ROPE with the controversial Australian Philosopher/Scientist, Julian Savulescu at Oxford, suggesting that Science with its genetic studies is not too far from finding a cure for all diseases and suggests further, that Aging is the next frontier to conquer and of its possibility. Living Forever!!! The Makropulos Secret.) The exploration of Time and Eternal Life was a preoccupation with writers and playwrights of the time (As it is today: David Lynch etc). Shaw (Back To Methusaleh); Priestley (Time and the Conways and others); Pirandello (Enrico IV and others.); Thornton Wilder (The Skin of Our Teeth) H.G. Wells (The Time Machine and others) The Makropulos Secret exposed, during the course of a legal wrangle over a will, reveals a warning through the personal agony of Emilia Marty, that we should be careful for what we wish for. Being Human for 339 years can actually de-humanise one. It is an agony to see mankind repeating its follies. There may be more joy in our short life span where hope for change to better ends can be possible. To witness history at such an extent may “freeze” you to a heartlessness, an inhumanity. This is quite a challenging proposition for a contemporary audience. Or for some a blessed relief. That this is so wonderfully delivered in this production is very transfixing.

Music is not my area of expertise. And, I understand that some Opera goers may want more melody in their evenings in the theatre but this 80 year old work when played, listened to and acted and directed so clearly becomes a major character. The score/orchestra become a character, it reveals theme, narrative and commentary. It’s functions are many. The Janacek score is Music drama and is brilliant in its conception. (One is made to laugh at musical phrasings that comment on the action.)

Along with Neil Armfield’s production of BILLY BUDD, I have had two entirely satisfying evenings in the theatre. As music drama,transcending. It is undoubtedly demanding, and I may prefer a Wagner performance, but for Opera lovers this is worth attending. Witnessing Cheryl Barker’s performance is worth being able to say in the future “You should have seen that.” It will be a bench mark of achievement that I have had the great good fortune to witness twice.

I felt that THE MAKROPULOS SECRET as near a perfect night in the theatre as one can have at the Opera.

1 replies to “The Makropulos Secret”

  1. I saw this production first time around when Marylin Richardson sang Marty. Like most Janacek opera, it is exceptional as is everything Armfield has directed for Opera Australia,

Comments are closed.