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Casting an opera heroine as Marilyn Monroe? Try another cliché. Janacek’s heavily text-based opera in the Bastille’s gigantic space? Asking for trouble. But Krystof Warlikowski’s new staging triumphantly squashes these reserves. His imaginative stagecraft shows such an infectious, almost childish delight in theatrical effect that we go along with his use of clichés and camp poses. And Malgorzata Sczesniak’s epic sets – including an expensive, walnut- panelled art deco cinema to pander to Parisian taste – could work only in such a big house.
Warlikowski’s operatic flair featured last season in Iphigénie en Tauride, but it was spoilt by an off-centre thesis. In this Makropulos, the first ever at the Paris Opera (!) his take is totally coherent: Janacek himself had stripped out most of the philosophising on immortality in Capek’s play to concentrate on the magnetically sexual and mysterious Emilia Marty, 337 years old. Warlikowski skates over the lawsuit and deepens the focus on Emilia as a lasting object of fantasy and desire, a celluloid variation on Wedekind’s Lulu. The opening scene is cleverly transformed into a conversation between comperes at the Academy Awards and the finale tones down Emilia’s acceptance of death by presenting Krista (Karen Deshayes, excellent) as her sex bomb replacement. The cycle continues.
Angela Denoke’s Emilia is quite simply mesmerising, whether as Marilyn in billowing yellow pleated skirt or Rita Hayworth in an emerald evening gown stepping down from King Kong’s huge paw (film buffs will wonder what happened to Fay Wray but Rita presumably has more clout as an icon). We have eyes only for Denoke, whose presence shrinks this vast stage, whose soprano sounds rejuvenated and fresh.
The opera’s other roles are also-rans but David Kuebler (Vitek), Vincent le Texier (Prus) and especially the veteran Ryland Davies as Hauk Sendorf are all excellent. Tomas Hanus’s superb conducting slows the pace to give the words a chance, and carefully guides the orchestra through the score’s running commentary to an explosive apotheosis. Not to be missed.
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