Anja Silja is what the Germans call a Kunstdiva, an opera singer noted more for electric stage presence than vocal beauty. Well, perhaps. As with Mary Garden, Maria Callas, and many others before her, that hardly tells the whole story about Silja, who recently starred in the Glyndebourne Festival production of Janácek’s The Makropulos Case at BAM. I go back a long way with Silja, who was (presumably) still a teenager when I first saw her in 1959 at the Stuttgart opera in Il Trovatore. There she caught the eye of Wieland Wagner, who whisked her off to Bayreuth a year later and became her mentor.
It’s said that Silja, now in her sixties, makes vinegary, hooty, and frayed sounds, but that, as with Callas, her vocal flaws are easily overlooked because she is such a wonderful actress. An unfair observation and quite off base. Silja’s soprano today is uncannily similar to the one that sang at Bayreuth 40 years ago. The “flaws,” if such they be, have always been an integral part of her vocal persona, to be accepted or rejected according to taste. If her voice is even less conventionally beautiful than Callas’s, her use of it, in an entirely different repertory of course, is just as shrewd and no less determined to serve the music. In my experience, only Elisabeth Söderström has given a comparably complete musical realization of Elina Makropulos, Janácek’s 337-year-old heroine who learns to accept her mortality and embrace death. In Silja’s throat, each note of this demanding part gets full value, especially the long and incredibly moving finale, which is sculptured with the consummate skill of a singer who knows her voice as well as she knows the score.
Silja bears no resemblance to Callas, whose movement was minimal and who acted mainly with her voice. Silja, on the other hand, characteristically physical, fearless, and self-revealing, defines Elina with myriad nuanced details that capture the full paradoxical nature of this ageless woman: her toughness, frailty, vulgarity, cruelty, sensuality, and, in the end, all-consuming humanity. There is no way to separate music from acting in this mesmerizing performance, supported by a superb cast, eloquent orchestral playing from the Brooklyn Philharmonic under David Atherton, and a brilliantly theatrical production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff that deserves detailed analysis in its own right. Okay, I’ll say it – definitely the operatic event of the season.