The overture begins in tumult and disorder. The curtain rises slowly, revealing the set piece by piece: the floor polished to a high gleam, a row of chairs, a desk, glass doors, and a legal clerk in a suit patiently chewing his lunch. As hundreds of pages fall from the ceiling we are dragged into a complex and verbose plot which requires the utmost attention from the audience to decipher what exactly is going on, and who exactly everyone is. Contested property, a long-running dispute between the down-at-heel Gregor (Peter Hoare) and the as-yet-unseen Baron Prus (Ashley Holland). A missing will? Men in suits march around the stage, collecting pages, writing on a blackboard, moving mechanically or as though in a trance as the details of the plot are revealed in clipped yet tremulous voices. With the arrival of our female lead the barrage of information begins to take shape. Emilia Marty (Amanda Roocroft) a glamorous, celebrated opera star in a Louise Brooks bob seems to know the location of the key document which will settle the dispute once and for all. But just as her callous, diva-like presence acts like cat-nip to the assembled menfolk, so the plot shifts focus and becomes her story, and a strange, cruel and poignant one it is.
In a revival of Christopher Aldens, celebrated 2006 production (which was conducted by the late Sir Charles Mackerras, who gets a poignant, silent dedication at the beginning), Leo Jančeks The Makropulos Case is, at its heart, a tale of immortality and amorality. Roocrofts Emlia Marty (or is it Elian McGregor? Or Elina Makropulos?) has lived 300-plus years thanks to her fathers elixir, and it is another 300 years of life she seeks. And given her effect on the assembled cast of needy, desperate, faux-macho males, she may get exactly what she wants. Roocroft imbues her with the same combination of callousness and tenderness that Lulu had in Pabsts film of Pandoras Box (that bobbed hair is clearly no accident) and she spends most of her time on stage alternately enticing or repelling the attentions of the assembled lovestruck fools. Her vocal range is piercing: her mocking laughter bites. Even her callous reaction to one characters suicide leaves us amused as well as appalled, and as the piece progresses we get to see what 300 years as the focus of so much mixed-up desire and revulsion has done to the woman beneath the hard, contemptuous carapace .
Not that the remainder of the cast are entirely obscured by this arresting central turn: Hoare is convincingly addled as the neurotic Gregor, mood-swinging wildly between murderous rage, desperate priapism and downcast acceptance. Hollands Baron Prus is composed, rotund and menacing, with a dignified, booming baritone: dignified that is until he feels compelled to mount the enticing Emilia and loses the upper hand to her in their game of wits. His son, the weak, timid Janek is brought to life by Christopher Turner as an almost catatonically nervous man-child, often facing the far wall like a dunce in a classroom. Note must also be made of Ryland Davies turn as Maxi, Emilias elderly former lover: like most of the male cast, he is an emotional iceberg, feelings hidden beneath a stooped, tired exterior. The extraordinary opening of Act II sees him dragging a chair behind him across the stage in front of the curtain for what seems like an eternity, for all the world looking like a grandfather clock which is about to tick its last.
The staging and design is impressively moody, Charles Edwards art-deco office set lit to look like an Edward Hopper painting, transforming between acts into the backstage area of an opera house or Emilias bedroom with minimal actual changes to the decor (dozens of bunches of flowers littering the floor for the former, a simple bedsheet strung across the wooden desk for the latter). Lest we forget that the source material of the opera came from a play by Karel Čapek (who as every nerd knows invented the word robot) there is a cold, mechanistic aspect to the movements of the supporting cast (almost all men in suits) who stride across the stage forebodingly or crowd against the glass doors like lost souls from a sardonically apocalyptic Roy Andersson movie.
Conductor Richard Armstrong keeps the orchestra in a frenzy of motion. Jančeks score is an infinitely restless, often witty, occasionally shockingly dissonant and doom-laden thing and it often feels like the singers are struggling to be heard above the frantically sawing strings and Herrmannesque chord changes. The English text also feels a little forced at times, particularly in Act I, where every line seems to exist purely for exposition. Maybe it just sounds more fluid in a language that one cannot comprehend. None of this matters in the strange, moving finale. Jančeks sweeping strings and Roocrofts mournful vocals finally allow us to observe Emilia/Elian/Elina as the tormented, world-weary soul she really is, as she whirls around the stage, desperate to free herself of the formula for the life-giving elixir, which is mysteriously stuck to her hands. The music swells and the room fills with mystical light. A finale and a performance that will not be soon forgotten.