28 November 2010

thus would I chant a song for you, O sane and sacred death

After a season of garish Aidas and bedraggled Butterflies, San Francisco Opera finally justified its existence by presenting Karita Mattila in her role debut as Emilia Marty, in Janacek’s great opera The Makropulos Case. “Emilia Marty” is only the latest pseudonym of Elina Makropulos, born in 1575 and still alive well over 300 years later, thanks to an experimental formula concocted by her alchemist father at the behest of Emperor Rudolf II, who ordered him to use his daughter as a guinea pig. She escapes and her father is imprisoned as a quack (as she notes, the Emperor couldn’t know that she would live over 300 years). She spends the next few centuries in various guises, always with the initials E.M., gathering lovers and acclaim as a singer.

The opera opens in the Prague law office of Dr Kolenaty, who is representing one side in a century-old lawsuit over an inheritance; the celebrated opera singer Marty shows up, rather surprisingly, and further surprises everyone with a supernatural-seeming knowledge of the location and contents of papers sealed and hidden decades ago. It develops that the original owner of the disputed property was one of EM’s lovers, and she has returned seeking the alchemical formula, which her long-ago lover took and never returned to her: her 300 years of youth are coming to an end, and she needs the formula to renew them.

Mattila is superlative, bringing a somewhat icy glamour and an incandescent voice to a role she seems born to play. (I’ve seen the DVD with Anja Silja and two other live productions of this opera, but it’s now difficult for me to imagine anyone else in the part.) Years of watching death take friends and lovers has left EM both cold-hearted and anguished. It’s in little asides (“they all die. . . “) that Mattila deftly and momentarily plumbs the grief of the character, before reverting to a Lulu-like aura which attracts a fresh generation of willing and would-be victims. There are moments even in the beginning when she suddenly moves in the jittery and uncertain way of an old and fragile person, preparing us for the revelation of her final monologue, in which she astonishes the skeptical lawyer and the other participants in the lawsuit with the story of her life.

The costuming also sets EM apart, from her first appearance in an elegant silken white outfit (this production is apparently set in the 1950s, but aside from this Marilyn Monroeish outfit the time change doesn’t really register; everyone else’s outfits look like the 1920s as originally specified, an impression reinforced by the Pierrot costume EM has on in Act 2's back-stage scenes; Pierrot was an artistic fashion in the 1920s, not the 1950s). The sets are elegantly done in blacks, whites, and grays (often cross-hatched in the manner of an old engraving), with touches of red (some roses, EM’s lips. . . .). It all has the air of the chic and the fantastic.

Each scene is dominated by an enormous clock, keeping real time. I have a bad habit (I think it is a bad one) of being obsessed with time passing during a performance; sometimes I think about just covering the time counter on my DVD player. Here the clocks are a constant urgent reminder of mortality, and the value of the fleeting; that’s live performance for you, vanishing even as you watch. This effect was even more powerful for me because there were only six performances scheduled and due to various conflicts I wasn’t able to get to a second one, even though this is the kind of powerful, rewarding evening you go to the opera hoping for (needless to say one is usually disappointed in that hope, however entertained in other ways; this production really is special).

I do have some complaints. One is that I wish the momentum of the piece had not been broken with a lengthy intermission between Acts 2 and 3 (though that did give the awful couple in front of me the chance to leave). Performed without an intermission, the opera would be about the length of Salome, which we all know Mattila sings; would it really be too taxing to perform this opera straight through? (I’m genuinely asking. When I’m doing something physical like exercise I tend to start slow and build strength as I go, so an intermission would throw me off; perhaps singers feel differently.)

I was thinking about Mattila’s Salome (which I saw on a Met livecast, the only one I’ve been to) because she brings a similar movement to both characters, towards a deeper understanding and acceptance of life that includes and ends in death (at least, Salome does this in Mattila’s interpretation). I thought her Salome was fascinating and individual because her final monologue became a movement towards spiritual insight, and not just towards the final grotesque expression of lurid sexuality. EM moves in the same spiritual and psychological direction, towards an understanding and acceptance of the power and beauty of life as enforced and illuminated by death. At the end, Janacek does that thing he does at the end of many of his operas, where the music, though still very much in character with what we’ve been hearing all night, lightens and spreads out and upward in a way that exalts the meaning of the final action, as well as the listeners.

Mentioning the ending leads to my second complaint, and this one is major. There's one other prominent female character in the opera: Kristina, the youthful daughter of the clerk Vitek. Kristina, just embarking on adult life, longs to be a great singer like Emilia Marty, whom she idolizes (at least until her boyfriend kills himself for unrequited love of Marty). The end as written has EM offering the formula to Kristina, partly as compensation for the death of her boyfriend; she then, having witnessed both EM’s final suffering and EM’s exhausted indifference to suffering, chooses to burn the formula. It’s an incredibly powerful moment: a youthful version of EM essentially looks at what that life has been and chooses a different path. In this production, inexplicably, one of the men (a descendant of EM’s, in his 30s) snatches the paper from Kristina’s hands and burns it. I have no idea why the change was made, or what we’re supposed to make of it. Given our time and place, this action is simply going to be read, and condemned, as a man imposing his judgment on a younger woman, without consulting her. I thought this was the one major misstep in the production, and I hope this inexplicable change is switched back to the superior original.

The orchestra, under the direction of Jiri Belohlavek, was superb. The entire cast was strong the night I went (in addition to Mattila, the performers are: Thomas Glenn as Vitek, Miro Dvorsky as Albert Gregor, Susannah Biller as Kristina, Dale Travis as Dr Kolenaty, Gerd Grochowski as Baron Jaroslav Prus, Maya Lahyani as a chambermaid and then as a cleaning woman, Austin Kness as a stagehand, Brian Jagde as Janek, and Matthew O’Neill as Count Hauk-Sendorf, a doddering old lover of EM’s who remembers her as the gypsy dancer Eugenia Montez who ruined and delighted his life. The performances are dedicated to the late Sir Charles Mackerras, who did so much to introduce Janacek to the world outside of the Czech Republic. San Francisco Opera had started a program of broadcasting some of their productions; if they’re still doing that, The Makropulos Case should be at the top of the list (once they correct the misguided change at the end, of course).


Civic Center said...

Cedric at SFist has a wonderful interview with the director, Olivier Tambosi, and there is the following exchange:

The libretto has Krista burn the youth potion recipe, not Berti. Why make the change?

Olivier: I never had a problem with Krista burning the recipe and I had not planned otherwise for this production. But in the way I work with singers - not just moving them around the stage according to what I have prepared before, but trying to respond in many details to every spontaneous and specific input - things sometimes take a surprising and unforeseen turn. And when we first rehearsed how Marty urges the recipe on Krista, promising her fame, beauty and the ultimate opera-diva career, Karita did this - physically as well as vocally - with such incredible, hypnotizing energy and ecstatic beauty as I have never seen or heard this moment before. It seemed like Marty takes complete possession of Krista's mind. Seeing the scene done this way, and how Krista became much more involved and drawn into Marty's world as in many other productions, it was completely clear, that in the instant Krista could do nothing at all but remain thunderstruck and confused and if we would want to show the audience how she tries to come to a decision about what to do with the recipe, we would need much more time than the few seconds of total silence that the score offers us here. So I had two options: react on this new situation or change the scene before by softening the intense confrontation of the two women or at least by reducing Marty's energy and dominance towards Krista. I preferred to keep this incredible climactic moment. That all four men start towards Krista and take the recipe from her is fully justified in the score, as after Marty's last "Take it!" they launch in an aggressive outburst, shouting "Don't take it!" at full voice. They will not allow for a second Marty in this world. And you could also think that, loving Krista, they would want to protect her from the terrible fate and the long suffering that the recipe has brought to Marty.

Civic Center said...

By the way, the entire interview can be found here:


Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks for the excerpt and the interview. I guess the change is no longer quite inexplicable, but it seems to me that the power of Mattila's performance (which does after all convey both sides of EM's life, the suffering and indifference as well as the glamour) is all the more reason to have Krista make her own decision. I stick by my objection. There's not reason Krista, an intelligent and sensitive young woman, couldn't have a sudden reaction and burn the formula herself.

Sibyl said...

This was one of the two best evenings at SFO I've ever attended: finally justifying its existence, indeed. My opera-going buddy (a native Finn, btw) and I were practically delirious on our way out, just wanting to hear that last scene over and over. I've been waiting for you to post your review so I could send you my haiku on the subject:

Right opera, right cast.
Janacek renders me mute.
[5 beats of silence].

Can they just do this one again and again, instead of the endless Butterflys?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Love the haiku, especially the third line. And yeah, I would love to have had more chances to see this, instead of SFO's steady diet of the same-old same-old. Their Janacek productions have been so consistently successful that you'd think they'd do at least one every year, for the sake of their artistic reputation.

So now I have to know: what was the other best evening? And what got bumped by Makropulos?

Sibyl said...

OK. Next best was the Iphigenie with Graham and Groves. As with Makoroplous, I left that performance giddy (or, to borrow your better word, exalted). Lest you think the only thing that makes me feel that way is stark, monochromatic productions of not-quite-standard rep, what got bumped was this summer's Valkyre. That was a first-rate evening at the theater. Tote Stadt might have beaten Valkyre if only it had been visible to those of us on high.

I agree with you that they whiffed not having Kristina burn the formula. I found it the only whiff, though.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Yeah, the only whiff. Kind of a surprising one, in fact, despite or because of the director's reasons.

I did love that Iphigenie also, and regretted that they didn't revive it for Domingo instead of Cyrano (he's singing Oreste in DC soon). Tote Stadt also blew me away, partly because it was much darker and stranger than I thought it would be.

Which Walkure did you go to? As you may remember I was disappointed with the vocalists at my performance, but friends who attended the opening and closing nights (some of them very picky about vocalists) were in raptures.

By the way, I didn't get a chance to respond because of my Internet problems, but I'm sorry you didn't get my seat number in time and so I didn't get to meet you at Makropulos. Some day!