The story of Elina Makropulos is a strange one. She was born in 1537 in Greece. When she was a teenager her father gave her a potion he had invented which would enable her to grow normally to the peak of her maturity, and then to live for three hundred years without aging.
Having recently seen Anna Karenina, I got to thinking about what a wonderful novel Leo Tolstoy could have made out of this story. Elina grows up normally until she is 37. She finds herself a career as an actress and opera singer. She then stops growing older. For a while, that’s fine. But three decades later she is still 37 while the people with whom she started her career are retiring (or dying). People are beginning to notice. Rumors are flying. Witchcraft might be mentioned.
Time to travel on. She changes her name, but always keeps the same initials. She moves to a different country, joins a new opera company, starts a new life. And three decades later she has to move again. And then again. Her 300-year odyssey becomes a series of ten 30-year episodes.
Externally, all of her episodes are about the same. Not identical, of course. One time she might decide to give her voice a rest and join an acting company. Another she might become a dancer with a ballet company. One time her love-life might be with a series of short-term lovers. Another might feature a longer alliance, even marriage. She might or might not have children.
But the episodes are not the same for E. M. because she is still the same person with an ever-growing stock of memories and experiences. At first this would be all good. She could profit from mistakes made in previous lives. She could explore roads not taken. But then it would become less and less satisfying. Whatever the new life might be there would be more and more “been there – done that.” How could a relationship be meaningful when it was just an episode for her but was a lifetime commitment for her lover?
The words above are my synopsis of the novel that Tolstoy didn’t write; the pictures are from the opera that we saw last night, November 16, 2010. Leoš Janáček was both composer and librettist of this operatic adaptation of Karel Čapek’s play, and it all takes place at the end of her tenth and final episode of her life. Various aspects of her former lives emerge during the conversations with various men and one young woman.
And conversations are essentially all we get for the entire evening. The conversations are not in spoken words such as you and I might use but are all sung to Janáček’s strange melodies and jarring harmonies. It was all one voice after another – no duets, trios, or ensembles – except for one brief time near the end when all the voices other than E. M. sang about 2 bars in classical harmony – truly startling for its novelty.
There was little action and less interaction. This was in great contrast to the violence in Tosca or the antics in Don Pasquale, the other two of the three operas I saw in a period of four days this week. The story is really an intimate one which to my mind would play better in a theater much smaller than the three thousand seat War Memorial Auditorium. And my perception of it all was not helped by being back in row U, more than twice as far from the action as I was at the California Theatre for Tosca and, in a sense, infinitely further from the close-ups in the MetHD presentation of Don Pasquale.
The basic plot is simple. Knowing that this is her last go-round, Emilia Marty wants Daddy’s formula so she can start another cycle. A few episodes back she had loaned it to her then husband who died without using it. She knows that it is in a sealed envelope in a drawer in an antique cabinet in a mansion which is part of an estate which is in legal dispute between two families one or both of which are her great-something grandchildren. She is desperate for the formula; regardless of possible cross-generation incest she’ll trade her body for it. It doesn’t quite come to murder, but there is an induced suicide which she shrugs off as inconsequential.
In her quest for the formula, Emilia Marty (Karita Mattila) becomes involved with four middle-aged men: Baron Jaroslav Prus (Gerd Grochowski) current owner of the disputed estate, Albert Gregor (Miro Dvorsky) who claims to be descended from an illegitimate son of an E. M., Albert’s lawyer Doctor Kolenatý (Dale Travis), and his assistant Vitek (Thomas Glenn). I wasn’t always sure which man was on stage at any one time, but it didn’t seem to matter.
There is a potential Romeo & Juliet situation between Vitek’s daughter Kristina (Susannah Billet) and the Baron’s son Janek (Brian Jagde), but it never develops.
A bit of much needed comic relief is provided by a tottering Count Hauk-Šendorf (Matthew O’Neill), lover of Marty’s immediate predecessor who shows up a couple of times.
The cast is completed by a cleaning woman (Maya Lahyan) who also doubles as a chambermaid and a stagehand (Austin Kness).
Acts I and II consist primarily of two types of conversations. At first they bit by bit reveal pieces of E. M.’s unorthodox past to the men and to us, the audience. They establish the existence of the sealed envelope and Baron Prus finds it. Marty’s conversations are now all directed towards acquiring the envelope. When the direct approach to Prus fails, she uses her considerable feminine wiles on one man after another trying to persuade her victim to steal it for her. Finally, Prus agrees to personally deliver it to Marty that night in her hotel room with a clear understanding that he doesn’t have to hurry home afterward.
Everything comes to a head in Act III. Marty has the formula but the men have been examining other papers found in the same drawer and show up in her bedroom accusing her of forging letters from several people including Elina Makropulos. She tells them the whole story – some of them believe her, some don’t. It doesn’t matter to her – she has the formula. But suddenly a revelation comes to her: “Migawd, what am I doing? Each episode is worse than the one before. I hate everyone, starting with myself. And I want to take this formula and go through another 300 miserable years? No way. Here. It’s all yours,” and she thrusts the paper at Katrina. Dazedly Katrina takes it, but before she can focus her eyes on it one of the men whips out a cigarette lighter and Puff! The formula for eternal life is gone forever. Marty dies serenely and the curtain comes down.
The discerning reader may have noticed a certain lack of enthusiasm in my review of The Makropulos Case. I admit it, but it is probably more my fault than Janáček’s. I try to enjoy all opera music, but whereas enjoyment comes naturally with Mozart and Verdi, I have to work hard to enjoy some of the more modern composers. Let me put it this way: IF someone were to offer me a free ticket to see it again next week from the same seat, I would say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” But make that a seat in Row D, center and I’d be tempted. And if it’s on a MetHD program next year, I’ll go twice. Indeed, there were many things to like about this performance.
First of all, Karita Mattila is both a great soprano and a consummate actress. She is on stage for most of the opera, and even at a distance it is a pleasure to watch her. She well deserved the standing ovation she received during her first curtain call.
The sets were terrific. All three of them were on a gigantic turntable, each with its own 120-degree segment. As a result, the vast stage was effectively reduced to about a tenth of its full area – a necessity for such an intimate opera. The horizontal intimacy was further enhanced by vertical height. This was particularly true of Act I with that fantastic bookcase on the back wall. [Trivia note: the bindings on all those books are from real books, but the inside pages have all been replaced by foam cores to reduce the weight of the wall.] Kudos to the director Olivier Tambosi and the production designer Frank Philipp Schlössmann.
The overture, conducted by Maestro Jirí Belohlávek, was fascinating. Right from the start it gave a sense of unease and urgency. You knew this would not be a relaxed production. As the overture played, the curtain was raised to show a very dimly lit view of the set turntable which was slowly revolving so that we got to see each of the three sets a couple of times.
According to Director Olivier Tambosi the large clocks were running on actual Pacific Standard time, “to make the audience aware that time is passing before our eyes and also to juxtapose time as mortals experience it against time as the immortal Emilia Marty experiences it.” I must confess that I know this only because the information was in my press kit which I read after the performance. From my seat in the audience I only knew that the performance was scheduled to begin at 8:00 and end at approximately 10:05 – The clocks served only to remind me of how far along we were.
And looking at the clock pictures now reminds me that I’ve been writing for quite a while now, and it’s time to stop. Ciao.
The Opera Nut
THE MAKROPULOS CASE
- November 20 (8:00 p.m.)
- November 24 (7:30 p.m.)
- November 28 (2:00 p.m.)
New Production Premiere
Co-Production with Finnish National Opera
Libretto by Leoš Janáček
Based on a play by Karel Čapek
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes, including one intermission and 1 pause
Sung in Czech with English supertitles
San Francisco Opera
301 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102
Except as noted, all photos by Cory Weaver San Francisco Opera
|Emilia Marty||Karita Mattila|
|Albert Gregor||Miro Dvorsky|
|Baron Jaroslav Prus||Gerd Grochowski|
|Doctor Kolenatý||Dale Travis|
|Count Hauk-Šendorf||Matthew O’Neill|
|A Stagehand||Austin Kness|
|A Chambermaid & Cleaning Woman||Maya Lahyani|
|Production Designer||Frank Philipp Schlössmann|
|Lighting Designer||Duane Schuler|
|Chorus Director||Ian Robertson|
This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on November 18, 2010.