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Caldwell wins friends for neglected Jan'acek opera

That Sarah Caldwell has mounted an opera season this year is cause for celebration in Boston. After a serious illness last year, the director/conductor has come back with an ambitious series -- just the sort that ordinarily brings out the very best of her inventive gifts. This year saw the US premi`ere of Peter Maxwell Davies's ``Taverner.'' Still to come are the the first American performances (June 4, 7, & 11) of the French version of Cherubini's ``Medee,'' with Shirley Verrett.

The current production is of Leos Jan'acek's ``The Makropulos Case,'' with the last performance this evening at the Opera House. Sadly, the work is still rarely performed, despite its effective, engrossing score and its showcase role for the leading soprano -- in this case, the Berlin-born Anja Silja.

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Miss Silja did not disappoint. Her voice was never an instrument of great beauty, but its penetrating quality, together with her statuesque presence, proved ideal for the role of the glamorous diva, Emilia Marty (nee Makropulos), who, we discover, is 337 years old.

Marty has returned to Prague to retrieve from a former husband's papers the formula that would give her another 300 years of life. After finally getting the document, she chooses death over another three centuries of empty, cruel life.

Miss Silja's striking beauty suggested just the right sort of ageless glamor, and her cool acting style added to the believability of a character for whom nothing is either pleasurable or interesting. The role is vocally taxing, particularly in the confessional, final scene, and Miss Silja rose thrillingly to the challenge.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast was not really up to Miss Silja's standard of excellence, except for Cynthia Clarey's sweetly sung Christa, and Chester Ludgin's imposing and menacing Prus. The sets, by the usually commendable Helen Pond and Herbert Senn, strove for a severe art-deco look, but seemed oppressively massive and awkward.

The costumes, by the celebrated Boston designer Fiandaca, were mostly serviceable. One (for Miss Clarey) was startlingly ugly. And Miss Silja, who should have looked exceptionally handsome in '20s clothing, was given only one flattering costume.

Miss Caldwell conducted with fervor, finding a thrustful lyricism in the jagged patterns of Jan'acek's unique compositional style, despite a share of untidy ensemble moments. However, her direction seemed rather aimless. Did the period of the setting really necessitate a Noel Coward comedy style? The laughter elicited at all sorts of places was rarely appropriate.

Nevertheless, it was good to have someone of Miss Caldwell's stature directing her attentions to Jan'acek's somewhat misunderstood work. For the cumulative impact of the Caldwell-led performance surely won friends for this engrossing opera.

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