Janacek: The Makropulos Case (in English)

LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: The Makropulos Case (in English)
PERFORMER: Cheryl Barker, Robert Brubaker, John Graham-Hall, Elena Xanthoudakis, John Wegner, Thomas Walker, Neal Davies, Graeme Danby, Kathleen Wilkinson,Graham Clark; English National Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Charles Mackerras
Janácek has become more popular in Britain than anywhere outside his homeland, but for obvious reasons mostly in English. It’s splendid, therefore, to have an English language recording of his most ‘contemporary’ opera, turning Karel Capek’s sardonic science-fictional tragicomedy on immortality, embodied in the mysterious ‘Makropulos matter’, into a lyrical affirmation of life and renewal. All the better, too, from the company which launched the vogue and under the same conductor, now almost as iconic a figure as Janá?ek’s heroine. Mackerras’s reading, recorded in live performance, is slightly more expansive than his benchmark Vienna version, and inevitably less finely played, but the passionately lyrical urgency and sense of mystery drive it along just as compellingly. Regrettably he doesn’t have Marie Collier’s or Josephine Barstow’s charismatic heroine. Cheryl Barker has the right kind of imperious soprano for Emilia Marty, but insufficiently incisive diction; and, perhaps discouraged by the ENO’s rather shapeless new staging, she doesn’t project this centuries-old adolescent’s outsize, irresponsible personality strongly enough. The rest of the cast is excellent, notably John Wegner’s arrogant Baron Prus, Elena Xanthoudakis’s vulnerable Kristina and John Graham-Hall’s acidulous Vitek while Robert Brubaker rounds out the rather colourless Gregor and Neal Davies the crusty Kolenaty. Graham Clark’s steely tones, though make old Hauk-Sendorf sound more psychotic than senile and the Stagehand’s ‘mockney’ is embarrassing. This doesn’t outclass Mackerras’s Viennese set, and Gregor’s 1960s Supraphon has inevitable idiomatic advantages and a better orchestra. But this is more vivid and dramatic, and its immediacy also offers English-speaking listeners easier access to this strange but rewarding masterpiece. Michael Scott Rohan