Karita Mattila and Gerd Grochowski in San Francisco Opera’s “The Makropulos Case”
Photo by Cory Weaver
The Makropulos Case
By Leoš Janáček
Based on the play by Karel Capek
San Francisco Opera
Nov. 10-28, 2010
(See video clip below.)
Time, as we all know, inexorably marches on. Unless your name is Elina Makropulos, aka Emilia Marty, aka Ellian MacGregor or the Andalusian gypsy Eugenia Montez, in which case it more or less stands still for some 337 years. These women, great beauties and temptresses all, are the various incarnations of the ageless heroine of Janáček’s fascinating “Makropulos Case,” based on a Karel Capek play. It is rumination on the nature of time and its effects, not only on skin tone, but life and love, set to powerful music and, in the current San Francisco Opera production, the best thing I’ve seen all year. Critics are known for their ability to cavil and carp but, alas, I couldn’t find a single thing wrong. From the stunning sets by Frank Philipp Schlossman, all blacks, grays and white and dominated by giant clocks that run on real time – in contrast to the protagonist’s life – to the orchestra, masterfully led by Jiří Bělohlávek, a prominent Czech conductor and Janáček expert, it was sheer perfection.
A co-production with the Finnish National Opera, it stars the great Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as the mysterious singer Emilia Marty. Mattila has made a specialty of the Janáček heroines in “Jenůfa” and “Kát’a Kabanová” but this is her debut in “Makropulos.” She owns it. Never more beautiful or sexy, every inch the ageless diva, Marty/Mattila bewitches every man on the stage and the audience as well. Her sinuous soprano embraces Janáček’s music, never so much as in the final act when she realizes that no magic potion can restore her gusto for life after three centuries of living it. That’s the moral, folks. Life is only worth living because we know that it will end.
The plot is both simple and complicated. The heroine’s father, back in the 17th Century, was alchemist to the Emperor Rudolph II. Ordered to find an elixir of youth for the aging monarch and test it on his 16-year-old daughter, Elina, the man was imprisoned for fraud when the girl fell into a coma. But, after a time, she recovered and escaped into the wider world, where her ageless beauty continued to ensnare generations of male admirers. Now, in the present day, she turns up in Prague to intervene in an inheritance case that has been dragging on for years. Unbeknownst to the litigants, one of the missing documents (along with a valid will) is the formula for the potion. Elina, now going by Emilia Marty and a famed opera star, has begun to suspect that she is aging and shows up at the presiding attorney’s office to try and trick the involved parties into giving her the recipe for youth.
What ensues is both funny and tragic. Some of the men worshipping at the feet of the imperious beauty actually are her great-great-great grandchildren. She could care less. The only one she gives in to is the haughty Baron Prus (Gerd Grochowski) who almost is her match. Except that, after trading a night of love for the precious formula, he observes that it was “like making love to a corpse.” Grochowski is wonderful, as is the entire cast, with Adler Fellow Maya Lahyani a standout as a cleaning woman and a chambermaid and Matthew O’Neill very funny as an elderly former lover who has lost his mind but not his sex drive.
Janáček’s music is uncommonly lovely, from the brief lush overture, punctuated by timpani and calling up time rushing by (as a clock passes across the stage); to the lyrical final scene when Mattila, gorgeous in a white flowing gown and swigging whiskey from the bottle, confesses her secret. The orchestral interludes between scenes are particularly tuneful. We all will – in spite of Botox – grow old and die but “The Makropulos Case” is one for the ages. And, perhaps, for Karita Mattila the performance of a lifetime.