In the background, an archive room is stacked with fraying legal documents and a huge art deco clock looms listlessly over the set, hands turning ominously.
It could only be The Makropulos Case. Leoš Janácek's penultimate opera – which opens at the Festival Theatre tomorrow in a new production by Opera North – is a gift for designers: set it even vaguely around the time and place it was written (1920s Prague) and it's bound to look stylish.
Judging by rehearsals in Leeds last week, Opera North's designer Hildegard Bechtler has gone for a classic take. Sumptuous art deco details, strong lines, high-contrast colours. Fail-proof.
Janácek wrote Makropulos in the mid-1920s, basing his libretto on a play by the Czech sci-fi writer Karel Capek. The plot revolves around the mysterious Emilia Marty, who is 337 years old but doesn't look nearly her age. Back in 1601 she was forced to drink a magic longevity potion and only now, three centuries later, is the spell starting to wear off. When we meet her in act one she's desperately trying to track down the magic recipe via a convoluted inheritance suit. She seduces, pleads and bullies her way to find that piece of paper, but the crux of the opera comes in act three, when she's finally got what she thought she wanted and suddenly has a decision on her hands.
For all the snazzy design potential, the real success of any Makropulos production depends on the strength of the soprano playing Emilia Marty. She's a tricky number. After three centuries of life and love she's certainly learned how to tempt a man, but she's vulnerable, too, and lonely and exhausted, and therein lies the emotional tug of the opera.
Singing Emilia for Opera North is Swedish soprano Ylva Kihlberg. She's fascinating to watch during rehearsals: even while conductor Richard Farnes sorts out the nitty-gritty of Janácek's dense, surging orchestration, Kihlberg sits straight-backed and motionless, utterly self-contained. She's been costumed in a tight, gold pencil suit and heavy jewellery, with a bouffant wig that looks more matron than femme fatale. But it's stage presence that counts, and Kihlberg's focus on gravitas seems a natural fit.
In her dressing room after rehearsal, she talks through the challenges of the role. "How the heck do you get to know a person who is more than 300 years old?" she asks in lilting English. "Often this piece is done very coolly and Emilia is treated as a kind of ice queen. But we are trying to make her human and emotional. We're trying to let her express herself. And we let her show her age. She's tired, and we're trying to let that come through."
During most of the opera Emilia is portrayed through her interaction with men, especially the woefully besotted Albert Gregor (sung here by the excellent tenor Paul Nilon). Janácek based many of his feistiest female characters on a woman half his age and who never reciprocated his feelings. He was the older man in real life, but we see his insecurities worked out through characters such as the naïve Gregor.
"Emilia is a man-eater," says Kihlberg. "With 300 years of experience, she knows what a man wants and how to become that for him. Once he's got it, he can't let it go." Think Don Giovanni or Carmen, she says, opera's greatest lovers.
So what drives Emilia to seduce? Kihlberg ponders the question carefully. "I think that initially it might have been a game. But then she became addicted to it. There's enormous energy in the chemistry between a man and a woman, maybe Emilia needs that to keep going. But of course it's what lets her down, too, because ultimately all the lovers die off -"
This is the first time Kihlberg has sung the role. It's also her UK debut, and the first time she's even set foot in Scotland. "No pressure, then," she laughs, but says she's "not wasting energy worrying about the wrong things". In rehearsal her voice doesn't sound huge, but it's incisive and agile, ideally suited to Janácek's music.
That took time, she says. "The lines have to sound natural but they take a while to get into your voice. Often you think the music is going somewhere but then Janácek diverts. He twists our expectations, maybe just by a single note. I love it. It's what makes it so, well, Janáceky."
Director Tom Cairns has decided to use an English translation for the production. When I admit to being a little disappointed (the original Czech text is fantastically vivid and, I think, an integral part of the opera's music), he explains that his decision came down to the simple matter of communicability. "The story is very, very complicated. Not the central story of Emilia's quest for eternal life, but the lawsuit. Even when you read it, it's hard to stick with, so it seemed the piece would be less alienating if we did it in English."
Like Kihlberg, Cairns stresses the exhaustion at the heart of Emilia's character. "Most people live one life and are pretty knackered by the end of it. Emilia has lived more than several lives. I think that's why, when she's finally got the recipe and has the opportunity to do it all again, she realises that she can't."
It's a timely message, he says: "In a world where everybody is trying to stay young, where people spend small fortunes to make themselves look beautiful forever, here is a woman who has the chance and rejects it."
Cairns is an inquisitive and energetic director, clearly still exploring various potential meanings in the opera. "There isn't one answer," he says, "which is what I like about it. The take-home message? It's about free choice, about strong women and people who get stuck in certain modes of behaviour. It's realistic. It's truthful about relationships. And it's not very sentimental, that's for sure."
The Makropulos Case is at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre tomorrow and Monday.
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