Success came late to Leoš Janáček (1854–1928) and his best, most deeply felt operas were written in his 70s. The idea of eternal life comes naturally to any person at that age and when he came across Karel Čapek’s play on this subject he eagerly accepted it for his new opera in 1926. His heroine, Emilia Marty (née Makropulos), a beautiful woman who managed to live over 300 years with a miracle drug invented by her father, a Greek alchemist in the court of Rudolf II in 1585, was in fact a personification of Janáček’s unrequited but very passionate love for a much younger woman. The opera’s strong emotional drive and beautiful music can be attributed to this “happy” coincidence.
One can rest assured that anything coming out of the Salzburg Festival is a world-class, extraordinary event. Director Christoph Marthaler takes full advantage of the Grossfestpielhaus’ wide stage with a tripartite arrangement. The centre is made out to be a courtroom, as the opera centres on a lawsuit and most of the action takes place here. On the left is a glass soundproof box where two women cleaners discuss eternal life while chain-smoking themselves to death, but the dialogue cannot be heard.
Acting, even more than the singing, is crucial here. All of the cast is perfect in both respects, but Angela Denoke, one of today’s best with credits too numerous to mention, a stunning German singer/actress (following a tradition carried by Elizabeth Soderstrom and Anja Silja) towers above the others and it seems as if the opera has been written for her. A great coup for the Festival in securing Esa-Pekka Salonen as conductor, whose interpretive skill, depth of musical understanding and inspirational leadership is almost unequalled in today’s shallow, sensation-and-cheap-thrill-seeking world.