Arts & Events

New: THE MAKROPULOS CASE at San Francisco Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday October 15, 2016 - 03:40:00 PM

Marking the 50th Anniversary of the American Premiere in 1966 at San Francisco Opera of Leoš Janáček’s The Makropulos Case, this opera has again been staged at the War Memorial Opera House. Based on a play by Czech writer Karel Capek, with a libretto written by Janáček himself, The Makropulos Case explores the pitfalls of a quest for eternal youth. Capek, who in his earlier play R.U.R., had punctured the notion that artificial intelligence will achieve human perfection, here expressed his belief in human limitations by showing how a woman who drank an elixir that kept her young for 337 years eventually found her life meaningless. Upon seeing Capek’s play in Prague in 1922, Janáček asked the author for permission to write an opera based on Capek’s The Makropulos Case. This opera premiered in Brno in 1926. 

For this San Francisco Opera revival of The Makropulos Case, Director Olivier Tambosi returned to oversee his imaginative staging, a co-production with Finnish National Opera, which premiered here in 2010. The Makropulos Case opens in the law offices of Dr. Kolenatý, where the clerk Vitek is filing papers dealing with a centuries old lawsuit over inheritance involving Gregor v Prus. The plaintiff, Albert Gregor, sung here by tenor Charles Workman, enters to inquire about the case’s progress. Vitek, sung here by tenor Joel Sorenson, is non-committal. Vitek’s daughter, Krista, sung here by Adler Fellow Julie Adams, enters and extols the beauty of opera singer Emilia Marty. Dr. Kolonatý, sung here by bass-baritone Dale Travis, arrives with Emilia Marty in tow. The role of Emilia Marty is performed here by German soprano Nadja Michael, whose voice features an amazing range. Originally a contralto, Nadja Michael is now a world-renowned dramatic soprano. Ms. Michael made her SF Opera debut in 2009 in the title role in Salome. As Emilia Marty in The Makropulos Case, Nadja Michael commands the stage, vocally and dramatically, in nearly every scene. With her beauty and her stage presence as a prima donna opera singer, Emilia Marty captivates every man she meets. Emilia Marty is a force of nature, albeit one that is, so-to-speak, ‘de-natured’ by having lived for 337 years and thereby become jaded. 

Emilia Marty expresses an interest in the case of Gregor v Prus, and she mysteriously possesses secret knowledge about the existence of a written will in a sealed envelope in the desk of Baron Jaroslav Prus. Exactly why Emilia Marty is so interested in this case is never altogether clear; or, rather, it is unclear exactly whose side she’s on and why she cares. It seems, however, that in one of the many identities she has assumed over her 337 years, all bearing the initials E.M., she once had a passionate affair with an ancestor of the present Baron Prus, and they had a son named Ferdinand Gregor. The birth mother was listed as Ellien McGregor, or was it listed as Elina Makropulos? Much of the plot revolves around this question – a rather tedious one, if you ask me, to lie at the pivotal center of an opera. 

Janáček’s music for The Makropulos Case features few arias and is comprised mostly of parlando passages where the singers deliver a conversational style of vocal lines, often imitating the rhythms of spoken language. The role of Baron Jaroslav Prus, for example, sung here by baritone Stephen Powell, is almost entirely made up of short conversational phrases, to the point where one can hardly evaluate his performance as a singer. This is one of many drawbacks that limit the appeal of Janáček’s The Makropulos Case. The convoluted plot, of course, is another. 

Things pick up a bit when the aged Count Hauk-Sendorf arrives and sees in Emilia Marty the spitting image of the Spanish gypsy Eugenia Montez (another of Emilia Marty’s identities with the initials E.M.), whom he loved passionately long ago in his youth. As Hauk, tenor Matthew O’Neill played a thoroughly rejuvenated lover who once again falls hopelessly in love. Meanwhile, Prus’ son Janek, young Krista’s sweetheart, also falls hopelessly in love with Emilia Marty, and he ends up killing himself over this unrequited love. As Janek, tenor Brenton Ryan comported himself capably in this brief role. Mezzo-soprano Zanda Švėde did likewise in her brief turn as a chambermaid. The opera comes to an end when Emilia Marty, feeling the effects of the elixir of youth wearing off, renounces eternal youth and realizes that her life, though long, has been empty and devoid of real human warmth. So she welcomes death. Throughout this production of The Makropulos Case conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov led the orchestra and singers in a crisp, agitated rendering of Janáček’s angular music. Sets were designed by Frank Philipp Schlössmann, and Duane Schuler was Lighting Director.