review: San Francisco Opera’s The Makropulos Case—long live Karita Mattila! Eternal middle age never looked so good
Last Wednesday’s opening performance of Janaček’s “The Makropulos Case” at the San Francisco Opera, was spectacular. With Finnish Soprano Karita Mattila in her debut role as Emilia Marty and Czech BBC Symphony’s chief conductor Jiři Bĕlohlavek also in his debut leading the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, the stage was set for magic—and it was delivered.
What a pleasure to see SF Opera close an otherwise spotty fall season by nailing it with a highly-creative production of a lesser known Czech opera. The performance was a co-production with the Finnish National Opera and marked the fourth time The Makropulos Case has been performed by the SF Opera, who premiered its first U.S. performance in 1966 with Marie Collier in the title role. It was last performed here in October 1993, 13 years ago. Those who follow the San Francisco opera will recall that Janaček is a good omen though. The November 2001 performance of Janaček’s more popular Jenufa (with soprano Patricia Racette in the title role) also proved to be the stand-out hit a lackluster fall season.
The evening was all about Karita Mattila— with a voice that seemed more powerful in its higher register than usual and a seductive portrayal of lead character Emilia Marty that was brilliantly comedic, she delivered the goods all night long. Mattila’s known for her unique mastery of Janaček’s music, having recently played both Jenufa and Kat’a Kabanova to rave reviews. She can now add Emilia Marty to her list. Mattila looks a lot like Cameron Diaz–gorgeous- and has that anti-diva vibe that makes her seem approachable and yet there’s enough allure to keep her elusive. And then there’s her acting ability—from the very moment she (as Emilia Marty) showed up at Dr. Kolenaty’s law office in Prague desperate to get the formula and extend her life another 300 years, it was pure and addictive drama. She toyed with all the men on the stage all night long and with her character as well, evoking a range of alternating emotions that made the 337 year old Emily Marty fascinating, pitiful, despicable and even enviable. And for a character whose blood is literally going cold as time passes, she made eternal middle age look damn good. From her first flash of leg in Act 1, to modeling a stunning cream-colored strapless ball gown inspired by Givency in Act 3, to all out posing on the bed in her La Perla undies in the final scene, she showed us her stuff. Never mind that the entire point of this opera is that eternal life—her character’s version of it— is a boring drag and she wants out, Mattila nailed it, contradictions and all, and drove the audience wild.
While the opera depends most almost exclusively on this lead character, the rest of the cast was also in top form. Miro Dvorsky as “Berti” (Albert) Gregor delivered a strong tenor and bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski brought a believable fervor to the emotional highs and lows that crafty Baron Jaroslav Prus experiences. 2010 Adler fellow Soprano Susannah Biller was magnificent as the young wide-eyed Krista, an aspiring singer.
Janaček wrote “The Makropulos Case” in 1926, basing it on Karel Čapek’s play. Its emphasis on lawyers and the drawn-out settlement of an estate makes it an unlikely theme for a riveting opera but there’s a twist: tied in with a missing will, is the formula for eternal life. Over three hundred years ago, an alchemist, Makropulos, was employed by Hapsburg emperor Rudolf II to concoct a formula for eternal life. Not trusting Makropulos’ finished product, he forced him to test it on his daughter, Elina, who was 37 was at the time. When she became seriously ill, Makropulos was imprisoned, but Elina recovered and escaped. Unbeknownst to all, the formula actually worked.
As the opera opens, Elina has lived 337 years with many identities and names but always with the initials E.M. and has become a legendary opera singer (more than once). There have been plenty of love affairs too, including one with a wealthy baron, “Pepi,” (Baron Josef Ferdinand Prus) with whom she had an illegitimate son. When Baron Prus died almost a century earlier, he left his estate in writing to his illegitimate son. His legal will is missing and along with it the formula because they were stashed in the same envelope. Elina knows this because she watched Prus seal the envelope. The lost will has sparked a century-long feud between the two branches of the family, Gregor and Prus, over rights to the estate. When Elina shows up at Dr. Kolenaty’s law office in Prague, she knows she has to lead the men to the missing will to get her formula. Like most men she has encountered, they are all too willing to follow her lead.
One of the reasons for this opera’s lasting appeal is the interesting philosophical issue it raises–do we as humans need a limited time horizon to be happy and fulfilled? As much as she wants the formula, Emilia Marty is disappointed with eternal life. Were we in her shoes, would we feel the same way? Marty actually has a form of eternal life that offers a lot of choice—it’s temporary but renewable. Granted, she had no initial choice in the matter—she was forced to drink the formula—but with each dose she gets another 300 years and, at the end of that, she can decide whether to renew or not. By not taking the formula, she can die a normal death.
In this production, the stage is set with large-back-lit clocks that are running in actual real time, making the audience very aware that time is passing before their eyes and to juxtapose time as mortals spend it against the time experienced by the immortal Marty.
How do living three centuries of life impact one’s character? Does one essentially keep living the same life over and over or does one learn and grow, transformed by new experiences? It is obvious that Emilia Marty does have cumulative memory, and yet she is bored and even cruel in the way she toys with people. She’s living through a very dynamic time in history, in a constantly changing environment, and so the range of human possibilities is always infinite and yet she is disappointed and physical beauty aside, ultimately disappointing. How can this be? Does it have anything to do with the age at which she initially drank the formula–age 37, and how that has impacted her further experiences and decisions? If she could spend eternity at any age, is age 37 ideal? Perhaps drinking it at a younger age, with more of life ahead of her, would have been better. When, at the opera’s close, the young Krista, who is just 19 or 20 (and perhaps a much better prospect than an eternal 37) burns up the formula rather take keep it for herself, we have Janaček’s answer reinforced with striking music.
Performances/tickets: Sung in Czech with English supertitles. Run-time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission. Three remaining performances of The Makropulos Case, which closes the San Francisco Opera’s fall season, are scheduled for Saturday, November 20 (8 p.m.), Wednesday, November 24 (7:30 p.m.) and Sunday, November 28 (2 p.m.), 2010. Tickets, further information: http://sfopera.com/tickets.asp