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).