Ten minutes or so into The Makropulos Secret, Emilia Marty enters. She never leaves. Even when she exits, she doesn't leave. When she exits, she's the only thought in every mind, and her name — her names — are on everybody's lips. When she exits, the gap she's not filling has more presence than the human beings left behind. Emilia is everywhere, and just the thought of her intoxicates. Find yourself in the same room as her, and abandon all hope — you'll be hers for keeps, and she might not even notice.
Emilia is gorgeous. Emilia is terrifying. Emilia is cruel. Emilia is in agony. Emilia is inscrutable. Emilia is impossible to resist. Emilia is unlike any other woman in opera. Emilia is extraordinary, and she must be sung by somebody extraordinary.
"An extraordinary singer?" asks The Disembodied Voice of Geelong, "No worries. Here's one we prepared earlier." And there she is, made exquisitely to order. Our own Cheryl Barker, with all the charisma, beauty and sheer stamina the role demands — and a voice that goes on for mile after thrilling mile. She combines magnificent control with utter abandon, hurling herself into the role with electrifying passion, without ever letting it get the better of her. Emilia and Cheryl are made for one another. When they lock horns, both emerge victorious.
The role is a gift to an actress like Cheryl, who flawlessly embodies Emilia's every mercurial facet: her dispassionate flirtations, her clawing desperation, her razor sharp wit, her flashes of pained compassion and at last, her radiant benevolence. Emilia's journey to peaceful redemption is difficult and inconceivably long, and Cheryl charts it with imagination and clear, intelligent vision. Her performance is brilliantly detailed, full of small touches — not spread on as a layer of obvious cleverness on top, but incorporated as inevitable aspects of a coherent whole.
One of my favourite things is the way she uses her extraordinarily expressive eyes as a weapon, training them irresistibly upon whichever man she most needs in her thrall. In one particularly telling moment on opening night (I didn't notice it this afternoon, but I may have just blinked) she managed, in the midst of the third act's fraught, drunken confrontation with Prus, still to throw an unmistakeable come hither glance at Gregor, enough to discombobulate the poor boy completely, even before he knew she was his great-grandmother. Women aren't immune, either: she uses her lethal gaze on Kristina too.
Her singing has all the qualities of her physical portrayal: it is extreme, terrifying, rivetingly intense and devastatingly beautiful. Janáček makes some incredible vocal demands of his soprano, and the pressure never lets up — Emilia is singing difficult and often high-lying music from the beginning to the very end, with very few chances to rest. Such demands neither bend nor break our amazing Cheryl, they just make her stronger. I've come to expect that her voice will gain in colour and expanse as a performance progresses: that she will be excellent from the start, but that the final act will see her most astonishing singing. But in Makropulos, she hits that point about five minutes after she arrives, and stays there. Her voice is deceptively slender: given half a chance, it blooms to reveal a remarkable array of colour, dynamic range and, when called for, just plain volume. One could not wish for a better or more excitingly sung Emilia.
In normal circumstances, I might feel a little guilty for coming so far in the write-up having mentioned nobody but the soprano. For an opera such as this one, though, it seems peculiarly appropriate — both the score and the plot are, after all, thoroughly dominated by a soprano.
But let us speak now of the others. Such is Emilia's prominence that there seems no natural hierarchy to her supporting cast. Albert Gregor was given the second-to-last bow, but for reasons of my own, I'm choosing a different order.
I want to give first mention to a pair of Opera Australia stalwarts of long and distinguished standing. John Pringle is making his farewell to the company as Jaroslav Prus. I haven't been in this country long enough to properly appreciate the extent of his career. What I can say is that nothing about his performance suggests a man on the brink of retirement. He's a wonderfully understated Prus and his singing is impeccable.
Robert Gard's association with Opera Australia stretches back to the 1960s. Theoretically he's retired from the company (he still teaches, and appeared in the musical Titanic last year) but was requested specifically by Richard Hickox for this revival, having sung in the original 1996 production. He is, of course, Hauk-Šendorf, the delightfully loony old man who recognises Emilia from one of her previous lives. Nobody could steal the show permanently from Cheryl, but Robert manages, in his two brief appearances, momentarily to appropriate it. His exuberance is adorable, at once touching and riotously funny, and his enthusiasm wildly infectious. On opening night he managed what I'd have thought was impossible in a through-composed Janáček opera — spontaneous mid-act applause. It was very well deserved. (In the interest of full disclosure and/or name dropping: I know Robert, and adore him. But this was my first chance to see him in action; now I know he's as charming on stage as off.)
There's luxury casting for the rest of the women. Dominica Matthews, who starred in La Cenerentola, is the chambermaid; Jacqueline Dark, who should be starring in something, is wonderful as the cleaning lady. Kristina is Catherine Carby, a singer I'm loving more with every role. This is the best I've heard from her yet — she's light, silvery and girlish, without being cutesy. Next year's I Capuleti e i Montecchi might be packaged as an OEV (Obligatory Emma Vehicle) but it's the prospect of Catherine's Romeo which has me salivating.
The other men are impressive too. Peter Wedd's bright, vibrant tenor is a revelation to me, since my memories of Jenufa are shady at best. He plays Albert Gregor to antsy perfection, fidgeting and popping pills in anxious anticipation of a ruinous verdict and looking every inch the weedy, impoverished aristocrat. Andrew Goodwin is emerging as one of the company's most reliably appealing lyric tenors, with a clear, sweet voice and always engaging stage presence. His stammering, schoolboyish Janek is a delight: pathetic, but not irritating, so that one feels Prus' pain at his son's suicide, even while secretly laughing at Emilia's callous reaction. Andrew Collis (another Andrew! the company is teeming with them!) seems to be a relatively recent OA acquisition, though he's sung extensively in Germany and elsewhere in Australia. He seems in his element as Dr Kolenatý, finding no apparent difficulty in the extended passages of legalese patter. Even better is his mad scene, which concludes the first act.
I came to an odd little realisation today. I'm pretty sure that the singer I've seen the most performances by this year is not, as you might think, Cheryl Barker, but rather ... Kanen Breen. Accidentally, mind you: he was the Prince in Cenerentola, and he's been cast in all three of Cheryl's productions, and so it's just sort of happened. Anyway, I have a patchy relationship with Kanen's voice, but Vítek sits nicely in the middle, which is where all his good sounds are, and makes very little use of his not-really-there upper register. And he's evidently having a marvellous time with the comedy of the role. One last boy — Shane Lowrencev in a very amusing turn as a stage hand. Still, it's a pretty big leap from this to Guglielmo next year, so we'll see how that turns out. There's a haunting men's chorus at the end too, emanating wonderfully from on high. And one further, non-singing performance which is just magical — Dinah Shearing's poignant appearance as Emilia Marty Incarnate, in the opera's extraordinary final scene, a magnificently shattering piece of staging.
The production is by Neil Armfield and has been revived by the man himself. He's a busy bee: his Billy Budd is running now as well, and the programme doesn't list a revival director for it, either. His Makropulos, like his Billy, is simple, illuminating and ultimately deeply moving. I'm learning to adore Neil Armfield. As obvious as it sounds — he tells the story. No mucking around, no complications, just intelligent, imaginative and lucid presentation of a narrative. Makropulos is fabulous theatre in its own right, and at the same time is in constant communication with the score, which again, seems an obvious requirement but in reality can't always be relied upon.
Richard Hickox conducts. Opening night patrons took the opportunity to demonstrate how fervently they disagreed with the complaints that have been in the papers lately — there was enthusiastic applause, and choruses of bravo. I like him too. Of course, Australia does just happen to have produced Mr Janáček himself, Sir Charles Mackerras, and it's his recording (the Chandos one, in English — same translation as here, with a few, occasionally annoying, alterations) I've been getting to know. But, as tends to be the case, hearing the opera live in the theatre makes its beauties even easier to come to grips with — and there are some very, very beautiful moments in Hickox's reading.
Not to mention in the score itself. Until opening night, I liked this opera a lot. Now I'm coming to love it. And with a performance like this one — and an Emilia as monumental as Cheryl's — who wouldn't?