Sunday night June 4, I attended the Cologne premiere of The Makropulos Case. It was an evening of great "Operntheater" in the most positive sense of the word. Very opulent staging which visualized the incredible story of Emilia Marty, born on Crete in 1585, and still alive in Prague in 1922 when the story begins. Madness was omnipresent - and omnipotent - in the acting and singing of the American soprano Nina Warren. Her voice had everything from the moving passion of Callas to the abstract qualities of 20th-century modern.
Although I am a great admirer of Anja Silja, whom I saw in the same role just a few months ago in Hamburg (the Glyndebourne/Lehnhoff production), I have to say that Ms. Warren's singing was in another class. Possibly Silja's Marty of the 1980 Gielen/Berghaus production in Frankfurt was as good as Ms. Warren's Marty of last night. Possibly. My memories of those evenings 20 years ago are, however, more visual than acoustic. The images created by Ruth Berghaus are still vivid - a surrealistic black & white theater with snow falling in the second act; Silja/Marty chained to a vertical bed in the third act.
The visual impressions of the Cologne staging were also formidable. During the opening scene during the overture, barely discernable figures moving about in a green-lit fog - was it a coffin they were carrying? Emilia Marty separated from this by an iron grating bearing a dozen or so oversized clocks, the figures behind her seeming to represent her thoughts, her facial expressions subtly changing from moment to moment. Emilia Marty climbing the grating alone while conversing with the young Albert Gregor (excellently sung by Heinz Kruse).
The second and third Acts were dominated by a gigantic clock face tilting precipitously at varying angles, the singers often having to move on this dangerous surface, sometimes upright, sometimes crawling, sometimes sliding. As her time ran out at the end of the third Act, she lay still on the clock face as the hands of the clock slowly closed in on her. The effect was shattering.
There were moments when I found the stage a bit too "busy," such as when eerie extras mimed fans of Marty/Makropulos, applauding the diva one moment, pawing her the next. The exaggerated characterizations were initially annoying - Gregor and Janek in short-pants, Krista in a tutu, Vitek urinating on the files - but came to make sense in the context of a modern fable. It was fascinating to observe the changes in Marty/Makropulos' costume from a long, tight black evening gown in the 1st Act to faux frontal nudity (a sequined body stocking front, black evening gown back and sides) in the third Act. The more revealing the costume, the colder she seemed, her demise anticipated.
Comparing this production to the Glyndebourne production is perhaps unfair, but also useful, as the latter is available on video tape. The performance I saw of it in Hamburg a few months ago is of course not identical to the taped one, but nonetheless roughly the same. The upside-down piano sliding along the ceiling, the conveyor belt moving scenery from stage left to stage right. Very attractive to watch, but not really integrated into the dramatic structure of the piece. The staging was very Silja-oriented. Ms. Silja has an indisputable stage presence and dramatic talent. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast floundered around somewhat helplessly on the stage.
The singing in Hamburg left something to be desired as well. Aside from Ms Silja's, none of the singing left much of an impression.
In this point, more than in any other, the Cologne production was unparalleled. Heinz Kruse (a superb Tristan) as Albert Gregor, Harry Peeters as Jaroslaw Prus, Colin Judson as his son Janek, Johannes Preissinger as Vitek, Molly Fillmore as his daughter Krista, Andrew Collis as Kolenatý, Martin Finke as Hauk, Samuel Young as the maschinist, and Andrea Adonian as the chambermaid - all sang excellently, all were a delight to the ear, all were a superb accompaniment to Ms. Warren's exceptional Emilia Marty. Graeme Jenkins conducted clearly and sensibly, allowing the music to develop dramatically while showing great consideration for the singers.
It was Ms. Warren's debut as Emilia Marty. Director Günther Krämer's staging seemed to capitalize on Ms. Warren's abilities. Her portrayal laid bare the many aspects of Marty's contradictorily fragmented, demented, and distorted personality: her cold eroticism, her desperate egotism, her sadistic cruelty, but also her sentimental longings and her now-only-fleeting gentle moments.
The pathos and timbre in her voice reminded me somewhat of the Callas sound, especially in the introverted parts of the first Act. On the other hand, the pitch of her voice is similar to Nilsson's and I think her voice is no smaller than that of Ms. Nilsson.
Ms. Warren has been singing in Germany since 1996, and has already achieved star status here. Her ability to create roles and to convincingly project total identification with them through her combined talents of singing and acting make her a unique artist.
I unfortunately could not see her sensational Salome in Stuttgart in 1996, but I did see her several times in the same role in the incredible Frankfurt production during the past two seasons. I have also been very impressed by her as Senta at the Frankfurt Opera and as Marie/Marietta (Die Tote Stadt) and Nyssia (Zemlinsky's König Kandaules) in Cologne.
Leonore and Turandot are also in Ms. Warren's repertoire. Her next Turandots in the US will be in Washington DC, Baltimore, and Los Angeles, before singing the same role in Vienna. Her first Salome in the US will be in Seattle in 2002, I believe.
All roads may inevitably lead to Rome, but my opera routings inevitably lead to Tristan und Isolde. I am very much looking forward to Ms. Warren's first Isolde in a few year's time.
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